The world intruded itself into her dreams, pleasant and formless things of warmth and seashore that she allowed to slip free and be replaced with the comforting feel of Dar’s body pressed against hers and the sound of the air conditioning compressor cycling on and off.
Ah. It was nice to wake up with someone, that’s for sure. Kerry slowly let her eyes drift open, taking in the sunlight as her gaze fell to the bedside clock. Muffling a curse she started to bolt upright, only to be held in place by Dar’s arm. “Augh!” She squawked.
“Saturday.” Dar’s voice enunciated clearly, from about an inch away from her ear.
“Buh.” Kerry slumped back down into the bed, closing her eyes and willing her heartbeat to stop trying to give her a nosebleed. “Son of a bitch.”
Dar settled back down behind her, one arm still clamped firmly around Kerry’s middle. “Had a feeling you were going to jump.”
“Urgh.” Kerry moaned. “My head’s spinning.” She said. “I hate waking up like that.”
Dar kissed the back of her neck.
“Now, waking up like that, on the other hand…” Kerry purred. “Is another story.”
“Are we waking up?” Dar queried. “It’s not that late.”
Kerry eyed the placidly gleaming clock, which was edging past ten am. For them, it was late, and Dar knew that, since they generally got up around six am. Even on weekends, it was rare when they stayed in bed past eight. “Where’s Chino?”
“Already let her out.”
“Ah.” Kerry pondered that. “How long have you been up?”
“A little while.” Dar admitted. “I was just enjoying laying here being a bum.”
Kerry rolled over onto her back, gaining an appealing view of her partner’s profile. Shaggy, dark locks spilled everywhere out of control, prompting Kerry to rake them into a little better order with one hand. “You need a haircut.”
“How about a Mohawk??” Dar suggested amiably. “That’d spark up the Monday morning meeting, huh?”
Kerry studied her, then she lifted a few thick thatches of hair up over Dar’s head and reviewed the results. She released the hair, then ruffled it. “No.”
“No.” Kerry shook her head positively. “Do you know how much paperwork that’d cost us, with me having to fill out personnel incidents every ten minutes because I bitch slapped someone for commenting on your hair?”
“Mariana would flip out.”
“Oh well.” Dar conceded. “I guess it’s just a trim again, then. Everything else I’ve ever tried with this mop has pretty much ended up looking like I stuck my thumb into a 110 socket.”
“It’s so wavy.” Kerry agreed, fluffing out Dar’s bangs. “I like it.”
Dar smiled. “Glad you do.” She said. “Like the color?”
“Don’t want me to change it?”
Kerry’s brows hiked sharply. “To what?” She asked. “Green?”
“No, it’s pretty. I like it this color.” Kerry added seriously. “It makes your eyes stand out.”
“They’re like weird little blue marbles. They’d stick out anyway.” Dar drawled.
“You’re so funny.” Kerry chuckled.
Dar grinned at her.
Kerry grinned back. “I guess we’re up now, huh?” She mused. “I haven’t slept this late in forever.” She stifled a yawn, and stretched her body out, exhaling with a slight chuckle as Dar traced a teasing line up the center of her stomach. “Ooo.”
“I was never a late sleeper.” Dar admitted.
“I never was supposed to be.” Kerry wriggled a little closer. “Even on weekends, you weren’t allowed to slothabed in my father’s house, that’s for sure.” She picked up Dar’s hand and examined it, running her fingers along the palm. “So when I moved down here, boy, did I love weekends.”
“But you don’t sleep late on weekends.” Dar objected. “Don’t you want to?”
A faint smile crossed Kerry’s face. “Well.. I thought about that the other week.” She said. “I guess the thing is, I love my life so much now, sleeping seems like a waste of time.” She looked up at Dar. “It’s much more fun to be awake.”
Dar’s face lit up, visible even with the sunlight pouring through the blinds. She held her hand out to Kerry. “So lets go live, then. I think someone’s Fedexing coffee.”
They scrambled out of bed, and were joined by a frisking Chino as they walked into the living room and were dappled with yet more sunlight pouring in the sliding glass doors. “Oo..pretty day.” Kerry ducked into the laundry room and snagged two long tshirts, tossing one to Dar as she pulled the other over her head.
Dar opened the back door for Chino, then she wandered over and started messing with the coffee machine. “Know what I want?”
Kerry closed her eyes and put one finger against her forehead. “Uhmm….. scrambled eggs on cinnamon toast?” She opened the refrigerator and started removing objects from it. “Am I close?”
“Heh.” Her partner snorted. “That, and you, but what I was going to say is that I want one of those spiffy automatic coffee makers we saw at the trade show. The one with the little cartridges?” Dar held her thumb and finger up about two inches apart.
“The one cup thing with all the choices?” Kerry asked. “Ooo.. yeah, that had good coffee. Can we get it plumbed in here? What about one for the cabin? Do they come in colors?”
Dar started chuckling, as she pressed the button to start the coffee brewing. “I’ll check.”
“I think a blue one for here..and a green one for the cabin would be cool.” Kerry set out a handful of eggs, and retrieved her favorite grill pan from the hanging rack just over the stove. “Grab me some OJ?”
“Sure.” Dar opened the door and removed the specified bottle, setting it on the counter and retrieving two glasses to put down next to it. Her shoulder bumped the lcd screen mounted to the cabinet, and she glanced up at it as it turned on and blinked at her.
Nothing was on the screen, so she nudged it aside and poured out the juice, handing Kerry hers and leaning against the counter to consume her own.
Orange juice was all right, she decided as she watched Kerry neatly crack her eggs. Apple juice was better, and she really preferred white grape juice, but both were too sweet for Kerry’s tastes in the morning, so she accepted the orange beverage as well.
Life was full of compromises. Kerry got up early on weekends to make her breakfast, she had orange juice, they both took a step towards the middle and each other and maybe in the process discovered what had been hard and fast rules really weren’t.
Maybe that was why she was now willing to let this one go. Dar pondered the thought. Let this bid go, and just recoup what she could instead of going after Quest and moving heaven and earth to get him.. to stop him.. to make him pay for playing her for a fool.
“Honey?” Kerry glanced over. “Stop making bubbles in your juice. It sounds weird.”
“Sorry.” Dar finished the beverage and set the glass down. “Why don’t I.. whoops.” A blinking light on the screen had caught her attention. “Huh.. he hasn’t done that in a while.” She reached over and clicked the light, since they’d turned off the voice commands to keep the system from responding whenever they talked to each other. “Alastair.”
The picture box opened, revealing Alastair’s face. He was in his home office, she was surprised to note, and then she realized it was Saturday in Houston as well as in Miami. “Morning, Alastair.”
“Hi, Alastair.” Kerry called out, keeping her attention firmly on her frying pan. “I owe you a bottle of something very expensive.”
“Ah..” Alastair peered around, not able to see Kerry who was out of camera shot. “Well, thanks, Kerry.. ah.. did I do something to deserve it?”
“Yes.” Kerry responded, but didn’t go further.
Dar realized Alastair didn’t, in fact, know that they knew what he’d said the day before. “You probably don’t know it, but your conversation with Mr. Meyer yesterday was being broadcast to an audience of hundreds.” She told him. “Including Kerry and myself.”
Alastair blinked, then turned a bit red. “Ah. Well.” He cleared his throat. “Y’know, I thought about that after, and Dar, I hope you didn’t think I meant you were an idiot when I..”
Dar chuckled and waved a hand. “Thanks for standing by us, Alastair.” She overrode him. “Made my day.”
“Ahah. Yes, well.” Her boss seemed abashed. “Well, the fellow was a stinker, you know, Dar? Make my hackles go from the start, and he got me at a bad time.”
“Meeting?” Dar hazarded.
“Eh? No.” Alastair said. “Caught my thumb in the car door.”
Alastair went silent for a moment, apparently absorbing the last bit of news. “Thought you might call me last night to give the scoop.” He said, casually.
Now it was Dar’s turn to feel abashed. “Yeah, sorry.” She muttered. “We got home late.”
“Yes? So what happened?” Alastair asked, curiously. “Been on my mind all night.”
Oh. Ugh. Dar took a seat on one of the stools and hooked her feet on the rungs. “Well, nothing good, to be honest.” She admitted. “After you blew off Meyer, I found out he’d staged the whole damn thing and everyone and their grandfather was watching it outside the office we were in.”
“So then Quest showed up.”
“He’s quite an interesting fellow.” Alastair remarked. “Did you know his father was a ringmaster in the circus?”
Kerry snorted softly. “Well, now doesn’t that explain a few things.”
“How did you know that, Alastair?” Dar asked. “You know this guy?”
“Believe it or not, the wife does.” Her boss admitted. “Fifth cousin’s third uncle’s stepson, or something like that. Called me up once and asked me to give him a job. Had no skills, no prospects.. had to turn him down, unfortunately.” He added. “Realized it was the same chap just the other day.”
Kerry turned her head and looked at Dar.
“Interesting.” Dar said. “Well, he showed up, we told him we were all finished, and the bastard took off and ran.”
Dar clasped her hands between her knees and looked at her boss. “He took his ships, and left. Apparently it was him who was scamming all of us, including Meyer. He did it to get the upgrades.. he’s selling the damn things to some hotel consortium over in the EU.”
Alastair’s jaw dropped. Literally.
Kerry peeked around into camera range. “That was kind of how we felt, too.”
“Buh.” The ILS CEO spluttered. “Good god, Dar! He took us? For all that?”
“And we.. you.. we.. just let him go?”
Dar’s brows quirked. “Alastair, I love the company, and you, but standing in the way of a forty thousand ton ship ain’t my idea of how to go.”
“We’re going to track them down over in Europe.” Kerry cut in. “I’m sure legal can do something.”
“All the good that’ll do.. Jesus, it’ll cost twice what we spent..” The CEO’s voice trailed off. “My god.”
“Everyone was in the same boat.” Dar muttered. “He just scammed us, Alastair. I knew it was some kind of rig, but one inside another one.. “ She ended up just shrugging uncomfortably.
“Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch.” Alastair finally said, after staring at her in silence for a few seconds. “I’ll be a son of a bitch.” He seemed at a loss. “Ah, well.. you know, funny thing there, Dar.. but that Meyer fellow called me back last night. Didn’t say boo about all that!”
Kerry finished the eggs, and scooted them neatly onto the pieces of toast she had ready. “Jerk.” She muttered under her breath. “Wonder what he wanted?”
“Really?” Dar shifted, leaning back against the counter.
Alastair now seemed a touch embarrassed. “He apologized, you know.” He said. “Said he’d been under some horrible pressure, you know the story.”
Alastair watched her face, as though judging something. “Say, listen, Dar.”
“Here it comes.” But Dar half smiled, a touch of wryness in her expression. “What did he want, Alastair?”
Kerry picked up a piece of toast and walked over, handing it to Dar as she leaned on the counter next to her. It occurred to her that both she and her partner were wearing almost nothing, and that they were talking to their big boss, and how inappropriate it all was, but after all.. he had called them, hadn’t he?’
“Ah.” Alastair glanced at her. “Well, listen, he told me he’s going to try to salvage something out of this whole mess, and I guess we all are, huh?”
“Mm.” Dar grunted.
“So he wants to do a little wrap up with you, and the rest of those fellows, just to see what they can come up with.” The CEO said. “And hey, he did say you’d scooped em.. be good for us, huh?”
Ugh. “I don’t want to give him a damn thing.” Dar said.
“Did you tell him I’d do it?”
“Me?” Alastair pointed at his own chest. “Lady, were you not listening to that phone call? I gave off trying to tell you to do things ten years ago. I just.. well, I just told him I’d ask, that’s all.”
“He’s a skunk, Alastair.” Kerry chimed in.
Dar glowered at the camera.
“Be some kind of offset, y’know, when I have to tell the board about this fiasco.” Her boss reminded her, gently. “Not gonna be fun, Dar.”
No. That was true enough. “I know.” Dar said. “And I wish I could tell you I have a magic answer to how we’re going to recoup that money, but honestly, Alastair, I can’t.”
Damn it. Dar sighed. “Guess some good publicity won’t hurt.” She conceded. “I’ll try to come off as intelligent as possible given I was taken in just like the rest of them were.”
Alastair looked marginally happier. “Well, good decision, Dar.” He said. “And hey.. I’m sure we’ll come up with something to tell the board.. won’t we?” He gave her a wry look. “He’s going to call you tomorrow. See what you can get out of it, huh?”
“Okay.” Dar conceded. “Do my best.”
“Always do, Dar. Always do.” Alastair gave her a more sympathetic look. “You two have a great day, huh?”
“You too, Alastair.” Kerry said. “Sorry we couldn’t make it come out better.”
Alastair waved a hand at them, then the picture went off, leaving the kitchen in silence. Dar sighed, and started chewing on her egg sandwich. “Wasn’t as bad as I expected.” She said.
The nonchalance didn’t fool Kerry a bit. She gave her partner a one armed hug, and a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll make it look good. After all, we did save all their butts, didn’t we?”
Kerry gave her another, longer hug.
Dar lay sprawled across the couch, ostensibly reading a magazine. It was a diving magazine, and she usually enjoyed them, glad of a chance just to kick back and read about someone elses obsession for a while.
In fact, they usually gave her ideas for vacations, and she’d pondered asking Kerry if she wanted to do one of the liveaboard dive cruises in some exotic place more than once. Fiji, maybe. Or Palau. It was just one more in a list of things she wanted to do with her partner, and she’d come to realize that at some level her growing dissatisfaction with work was related to her resenting their not being able to just go and do stuff like that.
Dar flipped the page, and gazed at an inquisitive seal, caught in mid bark. She’d always wanted to dive with animals, but somehow, her trips over to the other coast had never seemed to have enough extra time for that.
A soft sound made her look up and over at Kerry, who was draped over the loveseat doing absolutely nothing but relaxing. She had her hands folded over her stomach, and her eyes closed and she appeared supremely contented to be doing nothing more than occupying a comfortable spot just near enough to Dar for her to touch if she reached out.
Dar reached out and stroked Kerry’s hair with her fingertips.
A green pupil appeared and peered curiously at her. “Susan B. Anthony dollar for your thoughts?” Kerry said. “Magazine boring?”
Dar lifted one shoulder expressively. “My head’s just wandering.” She said. “I keep reading the same paragraph over and over again. I’m over it.”
Kerry flopped over onto her side so she could see Dar better. “Something bothering you?”
Dar didn’t answer.
Kerry waited, her head resting on the loveseat arm as she reached down and gave Chino’s head a pat. She already knew the answer, and in fact, she was pretty sure she knew the answer behind the answer, because she was bothered by it too.
“Pah.” Dar set the magazine down. “I’m gonna go take Chino for a walk.”
Chino jumped up and came over to her, tail wagging as she recognized the word. She nudged Dar’s knees as she stood, and followed her to the door, then out and down the steps as they left the condo.
Kerry considered joining them, but then she reconsidered, reckoning that her partner needed a little space. Dar usually signaled that pretty clearly, and usually it took the form of her going out onto the beach to wander a little by herself.
In the early days of their relationship, that would have intimidated Kerry a little. Even later on, she’d felt a sense of apprehension when Dar had taken up one of her funks, and it had taken her a long time before she’d come to understand that when it happened, it wasn’t that Dar was mad at her.
Most often, Dar was mad at Dar, and she knew if Kerry was around, she couldn’t be mad at herself for long because Kerry would nibble away at her mood until it evaporated. Sometimes, Dar just needed to stew a little, Kerry had learned, and when she was ready to be humored, she’d show back up and find a spot somewhere near where Kerry was.
So Kerry decided to stay where she was now, and she picked up Dar’s discarded diving magazine and began to flip through it. “Oo.” She murmured. “Palau. Man.. look at those fish.” She read the article with more than a touch of envy. “How in the heck do these people all take off weeks and weeks to go out on those boats? Don’t’ they work?”
It wasn’t as though the people in the picture were retired vacationers, either. They were all around her age. “Hmph.” She shook her head and turned the page. “Man, I wish we could do that. For like two or three weeks, just to out there and see everything… that would be so cool.”
So why didn’t they? A reasonable internal voice asked. “Because we both work for the same place, and we can’t be gone at the same time.” Kerry lectured herself absently. “And you know, that’s really getting to be major suckage.”
She turned another page, and absorbed an ad for a new kind of wetsuit. It was cool looking, and Kerry tried to imagine herself wearing it. “Hm.”
They didn’t wear wetsuits much, but as she’d noted in Disney World, they did have the advantage of making you look sort of sexy, in a Sea Hunt kind of way. Maybe she’d get one of these, for night dives they did off the back of their boat, on long summer nights not that far away.
Kerry flipped the page back and studied the dive charter again. Okay, so the people in it got away for three weeks. Her lips twitched. She could do it anytime, and had a custom yacht to do it off of. What was the whining for again?
Sometimes it was easy to fall into the trap of that whole greener pastures thing, and you lost sight of the lawn you were sitting on.
Not that anyone wanted to sit on a Florida lawn anyway, of course. Kerry had discovered the hard way that what had been a pleasant, soft, green fuzzy carpet up north was a frightening, sharp bladed, spikey, mostly sand and ant ridden patch of flora down here.
Kerry put the magazine down and closed her eyes again, letting her thoughts continue to wander. It felt like she had a lot of extra fragments in her head, making it difficult to concentrate on anything and rather than strain to pay attention, she just chucked it all instead.
Dar walked down to the east end of the island, where there was a small spit of land that jutted out. She sat down on a patch of sand, curling her toes into the grainy warmth as she gazed out over the sea.
Chino trotted over, and deposited a turtle on her foot. She sat down and looked expectantly at Dar, who made a grab for the animal as it scrabbled upside down, it’s tiny feet waving in the air. “Hey, Chino. That’s not a toy.”
“Growf.” Chino nosed the turtle, obviously hoping Dar would toss it for her to retrieve.
“C’mon.” Dar examined the creature and found it unhurt. It was a fresh water one, though, so she knew it hadn’t swum up out of the very nearby Atlantic ocean. “Were you someone’s pet?” She asked it. “I had a turtle just like you once.”
Chino sniffed at the turtle, who pulled it’s head in.
“He doesn’t like you, Chi.” Dar smiled. “I don’t think Brownie would have liked you either. She hated cats.”
Carefully, Dar put the turtle down under a piece of driftwood. She had no idea if the animal could survive out on the beach, but she wasn’t sure he’d survive if she took him home, either.
This bit of business taken care of, she returned her eyes to the sea, one hand absently scratching Chino’s neck. She wondered where the ships were by now, probably many miles out to sea. Were the crews partying?
Had Quest told them what their fate was?
Were they all laughing at the four companies they’d duped, left back in Miami?
Had the Captain, whom Dar had taken a liking to, thrown Shari overboard yet?
So many questions.
So many open issues.
That’s what was really bothering her, Dar realized. Well, that and the fact that she’d been made to look like a bloody idiot in front of her boss, her partner, and god knows how many other people.
She fished a shell out of the sand and examined it’s cracked, ridged edge. It had a dry feeling from the salt and the sand dust and she smelled it, detecting the faint, buttery scent she remembered well from her childhood.
She had, briefly, collected shells. They were interesting, and she’d spent hours finning up and down the beach shoreline, half in and half out of the surf as the sea alternately tugged and pushed her, teaching her the rhythm of it’s heartbeat.
Most of her friends had no use for them. Her father had no use for them, except for the mahogany olive she’d found once, an old soldier of the sea that he’d taken from her and kept in his uniform pocket for god only knew how many years.
After a while, she’d been at a loss as to what to do with them, so on a whim, one morning, she’d gathered them all up, all their colors and varied shapes, and presented them to her mother as a gift, suspecting she’d quietly eject them into a hole in the backyard at the very first opportunity.
To her bemusement, Ceci had absolutely loved them. The textures and patterns had really captured her artist’s eye and she’d spent hours arranging and studying them on mats in the little corner she’d set up to paint in.
Confused the hell out of Dar, but it was the best reaction she’d ever gotten from a gift, so she wasn’t about to question it.
People surprised you sometimes. Shari had surprised her, and after that experience, Dar had tried very hard not to let anyone surprise her ever again.
Kerry sometimes did, but that was okay. Kerry only surprised her in good ways, she’d never yet surprised her in a bad way even when she herself thought she might be, like with the tattoo.
Dar sighed, and rested her chin on her forearm. The one thing Shari had accused her of that she knew hit home with a vengeance was the fact that she never gave in. She always had to win. Always had to pull one out of her hat.
She could never take losing. Wasn’t that what Shari had said? She couldn’t take it because that would prove she was just another loser like all the rest of her friends.
Shari excepted, of course.
So, she was going to prove Shari wrong this time. Dar tossed the shell into the water. She was going to lose gracefully, take what credit she was due for doing a decent job, and move on. No pulling rabbits out of anywhere, no last minute heroics, no making it happen.
Chino trotted back over to her and redeposited the turtle in her lap. “Growf.” She nudged Dar’s hand impatiently.
With a sigh, Dar collected the animal and stood up, brushing sand grains off her leg. “Okay. Let’s take it back to mommy Kerry, and see what she says about keeping it.” She told the dog, as they started back towards the condo.
The sun was starting to slant down towards the west, and the breeze off the water made it very comfortable. Even the heat wasn’t that overbearing, though Dar stifled a yawn as she walked, kicking bits of beach detritus ahead of her as she wandered.
Then her steps slowed and she came to a halt, her brow creased.
Chino stopped, came back and grabbed the edge of Dar’s shirt in her teeth, tugging in the direction of home.
Slowly, Dar gave in to the motion, starting to walk again, but this time with an extremely thoughtful expression on her face.
The condo was very quiet when Dar entered, and her eyes went to the love seat where Kerry was now curled up on her side, fast asleep.
She closed the door carefully and edged across the living room, trying not to make any sound as she settled down on the floor next to Kerry, just watching the slow, even motion of her breathing.
Chino ruined all her stealthy work by clattering over, though, and poking a cold wet nose right into the hollow of Kerry’s eyesocket.
“Chi!” Dar made a grab for the dog, but it was too late and Kerry jerked awake, her eyes nearly coming out of her head. “Damn it. Sorry, Ker.”
“Yow!” Kerry coughed. “What in the hell was that? I felt like a raw meatball hit my face!”
Dar pointed at Chino’s black nose.
“Jesus.” Kerry hauled herself half upright. “That’s twice today.” She rubbed her face with one hand. “Boy, I must have been more tired than I thought.”
Dar released Chino and leaned back against the couch. “Sorry about that… why don’t you go back to sleep? Not like we’ve got a lot planned for this afternoon.” She tipped her head back and regarded Kerry. “Ker?”
“What on earth do you have in your hand?” Kerry was leaning forward, staring at Dar’s closed fingers with intense fascination. “Is that alive?”
Dar brought her hand over and opened it, revealing the turtle. “Yes, it is.”
“Ooo.” Kerry crooned at it. “It’s so cute!”
The turtle cautiously extended it’s head, and scrabbled at Dar’s skin with it’s four small feet. “Chino found it on the beach.” Dar explained. “It’s a freshwater… I used to have one when I was a kid.”
“How’d it get here?” Kerry looked up from petting the animal on the head with the tip of her finger. “It didn’t swim the cut, did it?”
“Nah. Probably some kid got it, and let it go.” Dar replied. “I was going to leave it, but Chi kept bringing it back to me, so..”
“So.. we’re going to Petsmart.” Kerry concluded, with a grin. “Rocking. I’ve always loved turtles.”
“Tortuga.” Dar pronounced, rolling the R sound a little. “Yeah, we can bring Chino. She loves Petsmart.”
“She loves the toy aisle.” Kerry sat up. “Okay, let me go throw water on my face, and we can go get Senor Tortuga a house.”
“Can we get a hermit crab to keep him company?” Dar asked ingeniously.
Kerry paused, and leaned an elbow on Dar’s shoulder. “Tell you what.” She whispered, confidentially. “I’ll get you a hermit crab, if you tell me what we’re going to do to fix this whole stupid mess.”
They were pretty much nose to nose. “Are we doing something?” Dar asked, quietly.
“There is no way.” Kerry leaned forward and gently kissed her on the lips. “That I’ll believe you don’t have some plan, some way, some amazing solution to keep you, and I from looking like jackasses in front of that camera tomorrow.”
Kerry rested her forehead against her partners. “Dar, one of the things I admire most about you is the fact that you never give up. You never back off, you never quit, and you never, ever lose.” She said. “That’s what caught my eye about you from the moment we met.”
Dar watched the turtle march across her palm, averting her eyes from her partners briefly. “Some people might not think that’s a positive trait.”
“Some people might not.” Kerry readily agreed. “Anyone who has to compete with you, in fact. But I don’t, and I love it.”
Ah. An unexpected revelation. “You do?”
“You love me being a bitch?” Dar questioned. “Because that’s what I am when I do that,” Her eyes searched Kerry’s at a very short distance almost making both of them crossed. “I’m not sure that’s really desirable in a long term relationship, is it?”
And, there it was. Kerry found herself speechless as she stared at her partner.
Dar gave her a tiny shrug, her lips pressed together tightly.
“Y’know.” Kerry finally found her voice. “I grew up having to hide who I really was and I didn’t half realize just how mind obliterating that was until I met you.”
Dar blinked, looking unsure and a little apprehensive.
Kerry stroked Dar’s cheek gently. “Please don’t tell me you think you have to change for me to keep on loving you. Please.” She paused, swallowing. “Don’t tell me that.”
Dar hadn’t expected this conversation to happen just like this, just so soon, or hit so hard. Her heart was pounding so fast she could see the flashes from the beats as afterimages in her eyes, and her tongue felt three sizes too big for her mouth.
But here it was, and there was no point in holding it back any more. “Well.” Dar took a breath. “Everyone in my life’s always told me the reason I pushed everyone away from me was because I was who I was.” She took another breath. “So I’d rather change that than take a chance on losing you.”
Kerry glanced at the turtle, who had settle down into the palm of Dar’s hand. “Don’t change.” She whispered, looking back up into her partner’s eyes. “Don’t change a damn thing, Dar. I love every single thing about you.”
“Everything?” Dar sensed the directness in Kerry’s rapt attention.
A touch of sweetly amused exasperation entered Kerry’s tone. “Honey, I fell in love with you when you were in the act of firing my ass. How much more everything do you need?”
Hm. Dar thought about that. “Am I being a stupid insecure jackass again?’
“No.” Kerry leaned forward and kissed her again. “We both have questions sometimes. We just have to remember to ask them and not keep quiet.”
Sure. Easy for her to say. Dar felt a lot better, though. She still felt like an insecure jackass, but it was hard to be too hard on herself when Kerry’s lashes were fluttering against her skin and they were eyeball to eyeball over a turtle.
“Feel better now?” Kerry gave her a kiss on the nose.
“Eh.” A sly twinkle appeared in the blue eyes so close to hers. “I get a hermit crab?” Dar said.
“With a painted house.” Kerry promised. “But you have to spill the plan, remember.”
Ah, the plan. Well, Kerry’s faith in her notwithstanding….Dar kissed her. “Well, I don’t’ have a plan.” She admitted. “But I do have an idea, so we’ll see how far it goes.”
Kerry grinned. “I knew it.” She did a little seated dance on the couch. “You know what I’m hoping?” She asked, as she got up and started around the end of the couch towards the bedroom. “I’m hoping you found some way to pull a bathtub stopper on those things and they’re now stuck in place bailing to beat the band.”
Dar got to her feet and looked around for something appropriate to deposit their new pet in. “Hey Ker? Where’d you store that old fishtank of yours?”
“You didn’t comment on that.” Kerry called in from the bathroom. “It’s in the closet there, bottom shelf.”
Dar retrieved the tank and set it on the dining room table. She placed the turtle inside, then went into the kitchen to find it something to eat. “Actually, I’m counting on them making it in one piece.” She called back, taking out a piece of lettuce and a few shreds of carrots.
Dar chuckled softly. “Really.” She carried the vegetation back to the tank and put it down next to their new resident. “There you go, buddy.”
The turtle seemed a bit overwhelmed by it’s new environment, his feet scrabbling against the glass. But the lettuce attracted him and he munched a bit of it. Dar watched him for a moment, and then she retreated into her study, sitting down behind her computer and giving the trackball a whirl.
Her desktop came up, with it’s background of an underwater scene. Dar opened her mail program, briefly reviewing some new entries. One made her frown, and she opened it, scanning the contents before she hit reply. “Kiss my ass.” She hit send, shaking her head. “Brainless gitwads.”
“Did you say something?” Kerry entered, pulling a clean t-shirt over her head.
“Not to you.” Dar fished in the small wooden box near her monitor, and removed a business card. She opened a new mail and typed in an address from it. She paused to think, resting her chin against her laced fingers as she considered what it was she wanted to say.
Kerry settled on the couch, tucking her feet up under her. “Can we get dad to sink them?”
“You know he could.”
“We probably could get them stopped.” Dar flexed her fingers, then started typing. “Hold on a minute, I’m thinking in German.”
German? Kerry’s ears perked up. “Hans?”
“You have gone out of your head.” Hans voice sounded remarkably clear, given it was issuing forth from a continent away. “Do you know what time it is here?”
“You called me.” Dar reminded him dryly.
“Do I know what time it is?” Hans asked, not missing a beat. “How could I know when I get these very strange emails in the middle of the night.”
Dar gave her trackball a whirl, studying the information on her screen. “So you’re sure it’s Hundemann?”
“As sure as anything in this business can be sure.” Hans said. “My sources are respectable, and it seems they have quietly bought two hotel lines recently.”
“Ah.” Dar scrolled down. “They’re pretty big.”
“They are not Marriot Corporation, but yes.” Hans agreed. “And so?”
And so. Dar reviewed the corporate data, her eyes searching for connections between the bland points. Hundemann’s had picked up properties that were mostly older, mostly converted chateaus, castles, country mansions, you name it.
They were modestly successful. Customers liked them, and they’d gotten on the hotel A lists, pushing their theme of the grandeur of yesteryear.
That made the ships fit in with their corporate plan, all right. “Okay.” Dar mused slowly. “This is the pitch. You listening?”
“Most surely, I am listening.” Hans replied.
Dar felt her mind going a mile a minute. It was a feeling that had been familiar to her for a long time, but not so much recently. She’d almost forgotten how much she liked it. “I’m sure they already have a management system.”
“They do. One of my competitors.”
“So what we have to do is sell them yours, riding on my pipes.”
Hans was silent for a long moment. “We have to do that?” He finally queried. “Why?”
“You don’t want to sell your system?”
“I do.” Hans protested. “But what advantage can we offer to these people? You cannot be thinking of going cheaper than my competitor. I will not allow it.”
Interesting reverse psychology, Dar considered. “No, not for this guy.” She reluctantly agreed. “He goes for quality, which is why he should go for us.”
Hans laughed, but there was no mocking in it. “You know, I agree!” He said. “In fact, that is exactly how I will what you call pitch to him. He should buy my system and your hardware because it is simply the best, and that is all there is to that. It is good. I will call them.”
“Great.” Dar paused to take a breath.
“I can go back to sleep now, yes?” Hans asked pointedly.
“Sure.” Dar said.
“Then a good night to you, Dar. Please give my regards to your delightful wife.”
“Thanks. Night.’ Dar hung up the phone, not entire satisfied with the conversation. “Hm.”
“So, what was that all about?” Kerry asked. “Did he go for whatever it was you were asking?”
Dar scowled. “Not sure.” She half shrugged. “I think he did, but not with the urgency I really wanted.” She sighed. “Well, we could just hint that we’ve got something in the works.”
Kerry frowned. “I hate vague hints.” She said. “Almost as much as I hate not knowing the plan.”
Blue eyes blinked guiltily at her. “Sorry.” Dar murmured. “C’mere.”
Kerry got up and circled the desk, peering at Dar’s screen. “Okay. I’m here.”
“I asked Hans to find out who was in a position to acquire those four ships, and do something intelligent with them. After he made jokes about half the companies in Europe, he came up with three.” Dar clicked on a window. “I ran analysis on them, and we came up with two that have balance sheets so bad they couldn’t buy a Happy Meal, and this one.” She pointed at the screen she’d been reading.
“They own a lot old time, classy places.”
Kerry grunted. “And you think they’re after the ships?” She glanced at her partner. “Why them, and not Starwood, or one of the big multinationals from this side of the pond?”
Why, indeed? Dar found herself in the position of trying to explain a hunch, one of those intuitive decisions she often made and seldom regretted. Kerry had been one of them. “Just feels like a European company is in this.” She said. “So anyway, I wanted Hans to pitch his distributed management system, over a network we’d provide.”
“Why??” Dar gave her a look.
“No.. um..” Kerry held a hand up. “I know why, but I guess I mean, why us? What does this get us?”
Dar clicked on a page. “They have two hundred locations.” She said. “What it gets us is a major European backbone, which we don’t have right now, as a growth platform. It also gets us a foothold in the services sector, which we also don’t have, and last but not least… “ One more click. “It recoups all our investment in that ship as well as locks our competitors out.”
It nearly took Kerry’s breath away. “Whoa.”
“Mm.” Dar grunted. “If Hans can pull it off.” She said. “He didn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.. but we’ll see.”
“Couldn’t we..” Kerry paused. “We’ve got programmers, Dar. We could do our own system.”
“We could.” Her partner agreed. “But it’d take years, which we don’t have.”
“And, if this is Hundemann, they’re pretty fiercely Euro centric.”
“Ah. We need Hans to front us.” Kerry nodded. “It’s a great idea, Dar.”
Dar leaned her head against her fist. “Wish I’d thought of it a little sooner.” She admitted. “Wonder if any of the rest of them caught on? We could be in a race and not even know it.”
Kerry’s cell phone rang, startling them both. She reached for it, flipping it open as a glance showed her an unfamiliar number. “Hello?”
The voice was loud enough for Dar to hear it, and it brought her upright and reaching for the phone. “Give me that.”
“Ah ah ah.” Kerry scrambled out of reach. “Excuse me, there’s no one here by that name.” She responded into the phone in a pleasant tone. “You must have the wrong number. Goodbye.” She closed the cell. “I don’t remember giving her my cell phone number.. did you?”
Dar glared at the device, her eyes narrowing.
“Just kidding.” Kerry assured her. “That was a marine line.. guess she’s still stuck out there, huh?”
The cell rang again. Dar imperiously held out her hand, palm up. “Give me that thing.”
Kerry hesitated, then she meekly handed it over.
Dar opened it. “Yes.” She answered, in a silken tone.
“Don’t’ you fucking hang up again on me, you bitch.”
“Different bitch.” Dar replied. “And I’ll hang up any time I like, so unless you’ve got something even slightly intelligent to say, goodbye.”
Kerry snuggled up to her, wrapping herself around Dar’s tall body and angling her head to listen. “You know something.” She murmured. “She’s the first person including my father I hate enough to wish something bad happens to her.”
“I am going to fucking sue your ass!” Shari screamed into the phone.
“For?” Dar responded mildly.
“I’m stuck on this piece of shit ship!”
“And that’s my fault.. how?”
“Did I ask you come aboard it? Did I ask you to start playing around with the IT systems in an attempt to screw with us? Did I make you so stupid it’s a wonder you can breath and blink at the same time?” Dar went on. “Sorry to have to inject reality not to mention logic into the conversation, but frankly, you screwed yourself, which is what you should have been doing all along so as not to give the rest of us migraines.”
“Ooo.” Kerry wriggled.
“You..” There was a hiss of interference. “This is all your doing! I know it! You’ve been trying to fuck me over ever since I dumped you!”
“Stop blaming me, Shari.” Dar’s voice suddenly went very serious. “You want someone to blame for your troubles, look in a mirror. I don’t need to screw you over. I’ve got everything. You mean nothing to me.”
“So stop wasting my time.” Dar finished quietly.
The line went dead. Dar looked at the phone, then she closed it and let it drop onto the surface of her desk. She looked down at Kerry, who was still wrapped around her. “Well.”
Kerry hugged her.
Dar exhaled. “You know something? I actually feel sorry for her.”
“I don’t.” Green eyes peered wryly up. “And you shouldn’t either. You were so totally right, Dar. Whatever happened to her.. she did to herself.”
“Not that she’ll ever buy that.” Kerry acknowledged.
“No. It’ll always be my fault.” Dar sighed. “Damn it.”
Kerry sniffed. “Well.” She concluded. “If that’s the case, I hope they’re in hundred foot seas every second they’re out there, and run out of Dramamine.”
“Sorry, hon. If she’s determined to hate you, I’ll just return the favor. I was never into that two wrongs rigamarole.” The blond woman stated stubbornly. “At least not where you’re concerned.” She added hastily, seeing Dar’s hiked eyebrows.
“Not very Christian.” Dar remarked diplomatically.
“Neither am I.” Kerry smiled, with a touch of bittersweetness. “But seriously, Dar. I don’t think there’s anything you can do for her. I think she’s talked herself into believing you’re out to get her, and she probably doesn’t realize she has a thing for you.”
Dar blinked. “What?”
“Don’t you remember? In North Carolina? She tried to get you to go out with her.” Kerry poked Dar in the ribs. “I think she liked what she saw, and figured she could pick up from way back when.”
“Except I wasn’t interested.” Dar murmured. “I blew her off.”
“So.. you switched places.”
“And she was determined to bring me down, just like she thinks I was determined to do that to her.” Dar sat down on the desk, releasing a breath in sudden understanding. “Holy crap.”
“Crap, anyway.” Kerry smoothed the unruly dark hair off her partner’s forehead.
Dar stared off past her, through the window. “One of us has to stop this, then.” She said. “And I think it has to be me.”
Kerry absorbed that thoughtfully, but made no comment.
Ceci stood behind the captain’s seat, her hair being whipped back as they traveled across the dark sea. She felt a bit like a dog out for a car ride, except there were no traffic lights anywhere and Andy was actually driving in a straight line. “Why are we doing this, again?”
“Dardar done asked.”
Ceci digested this for a moment. “And if she asked, you’d jump off a building?”
“Pends on what I was supposed to squish down at the bottom of it.”
His wife chuckled dryly. “You’d enjoy squishing whatever it was.”
Ceci leaned against him. “How long till we get there?”
Andrew checked the watch strapped to his wrist. “Bout two hours.” He concluded. “Got some buddies of mine slowing things down.”
“Hm.” Ceci flexed her fingers. “How about some hot chocolate?” She tugged on her husband’s ear. “You up for that, sailor boy?”
“Yeap.” Andy nodded positively. “That’d be real nice.”
“Be right back.” Ceci made her way to the ladder and carefully climbed down it, trading the warm, if whipping wind for the peace of the boat’s cabin. She waited for a particularly sharp pitching to stop, then walked over to the small kitchen and slipped behind the counter.
She wasn’t much of a cook, and never pretended to be. Neither was Andy. They both subsisted on a mish mash of burgers and vegetable curries, with a lot of fresh fruit and what seemed to her an inordinate amount of peanut butter.
But she could manage hot chocolate just fine, knowing to make it with just the right amount of chocolate syrup and milk, added to a judicious application of microwaves. She did so now, and took a seat on the weighted base stool to wait for it to finish heating.
The drone of the big diesel engines was almost inaudible inside, which always surprised her. She’d gotten used to the motion now, and in fact, the rocking of the boat even in dock put her to sleep like a baby, but every once in a while she’d look around and slap herself when she realized that after all she’d gone through in her life, here she was now with it all.
Hilarious, really. Ceci leaned on the counter, listening to the whirring of the microwave heating up the chocolate. She could almost imagine running into a very early version of herself now, and informing that rebellious freak show that she’d end up married to a sailor and owning a motor yacht anchored off South Beach.
She was pretty sure she’d have run screaming. Now, she just peacefully observed their neat, teak inlaid living space and stuck her tongue out at her younger self. At least her family still disowned her, right? That had to count for something, to those crabby little memories.
Both their families had disowned them. She’d once broached the subject of trying to reconnect with his family to Andy, but he’d just shook his head without even a moment’s hesitation.
Ah well. She’d reconnected with Dar, and that would have to be enough familial reconciliation for her for this lifetime, at least.
The ship rocked a little again, and she turned to peer out the porthole. It was getting very dark out there, and she was still really wondering what Dar was thinking when she asked them to come. It worried her a little, because insofar as she understood her daughter, she didn’t understand this.
The radio crackled softly, whispers from hidden travelers on the sea like they were, talking into the silence.
“Ready?” Kerry glanced at her reflection in the mirror, twitching a bit of blond hair into place. “You realize they won’t recognize us, right? After we spent the last week in rags?” She surveyed her silver blue linen sheath as she shrugged into her gunmetal gray jacket.
“Probably not.” Dar appeared in the mirror’s reflection behind her. She was dressed in a black business suit jacket and skirt, with a burgundy silk shirt. “You look gorgeous.” She complimented her partner, giving her an approving smile as she twitched the shoulders straight on Kerry’s jacket.
Kerry straightened in reflex, glancing in the mirror to meet Dar’s eyes. “Thanks.” She smiled. “So do you.”
“Hm.. this old thing?” Dar held her arms out, giving her suit a droll look.
“What’s in it.” Kerry turned around and traced a line down the front of her partner’s neck. “Did I say anything about the packaging?” Her fingertip disappeared inside the collar of Dar’s shirt. “Any word from Hans?”
“Nope.” Dar reached past Kerry and selected a pair of earrings, fastening them into her lobes. “Not a word.”
Kerry applied a bit of perfume to her wrists, and rubbed them together. “Well.”
“It’s Sunday.” Dar shrugged. “Can’t really expect much on the weekend.” She picked up Kerry’s arm by the wrist and rubbed the inside of it against the side of her neck. “Mm.” She growled softly. “I like that.”
Kerry almost sneezed, the sudden seduction sending confusing signals across her body. “It’s new.” She responded in bemusement.
“It’s you.” Dar relented, releasing her arm and giving her a pat on the shoulder. “We ready for our close-ups, Ms Demille?”
Kerry rolled her eyes. “What are you going to do, since we haven’t heard from Hans?”
“Bullshit.” Dar replied amiably.
Kerry followed Dar out the door and into the purple twilight of a summer evening. They walked together down the path and over to Dar’s car. “You know where we’re going?” Kerry asked. “I don’t think I ever heard of the place.”
“Ivan Tors?” Dar chuckled softly. “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
“Really?” Kerry got into the Lexus and settled into the leather seat. “I thought your mom said you were too feisty for baby commercials.”
Dar closed the door and started the car. “I was.” She backed the Lexus out of it’s parking spot, leaving Kerry’s smaller blue one sitting in lonely isolation. “But they used to film Flipper there, and we went on a school field trip to check it out.”
Kerry leaned an elbow on the center console. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” Dar shook her head. “They were doing some movie or something there when we were by… had the big tank filled up with water and I jumped in.”
“Oh my gosh.”
“Hey, it was hot.” Dar turned onto the main road of the island. “Pissed off a lot of people, let me tell ya, but one of the guys doing the shots wanted me to stick around.”
Kerry’s eyes twinkled. “Ah. A gentleman of discerning tastes.”
Dar smiled, but didn’t answer. She pulled up and directly onto the ferry, which was just about ready to cast off. Rolling into place, she set the parking brake and relaxed. As she looked off towards the west, towards a still crimson line near the horizon, she could sense an ending coming and was glad of it.
“So you’re going to bullshit?” Kerry changed the subject, watching her partner’s fingers tap restlessly on the steering wheel. “What part do you want me to take up? How we’re working to incorporate our international partners?”
“Mm. I like that.” Dar gave her an approving grin.
Kerry leaned back, watching the shoreline go past as the ferry crossed the cut. The last light was fading from the sky and she enjoyed the faint puffs of magenta still outlining the western clouds. “We driving down to the cabin tomorrow or taking the Dixie?”
Dar didn’t answer for a few minutes, her brow tensing a little. Then she shrugged. “Let’s take the Dixie. We can run down to Key West one of the days for fun if we want.”
“Ooo.. I like that idea.” Kerry found herself really looking forward to it. “I really do.” She added, in a softer tone. “And you know, we can get some stuff done from there, Dar. I’ve got so much catchup to do.”
Dar eyed her.
“I just really like the idea of working from there.” Kerry caught the look, and blushed a little. “I got so much more done that one day.”
Dar casually reached over and took Kerry’s hand in hers. They both sat in silence as the ferry made a lazy u-turn in the channel and started to nose up to the landside ferry base. Then Dar turned her head and looked at Kerry. “I want to put together this deal.” She sounded slightly surprised. “With Hans.”
“Do you?” Kerry asked.
Dar nodded. “We can really make a move in Europe with this.” She said. “We’ve got a lot of services contracts over there, but almost no infrastructure. That’s why the international calls give me such a hive. They have no clue what I do.”
“I think it’s a great idea.”
“Which one?” Dar half grinned.
“All of them. I like the idea of you expanding our business there.” Kerry replied. “And to be honest, I think I need to pull back from that side of it a little. I need to get our house in order. There’s been way too much suckage in the last few months.”
They both studied each other as the ferry docked, and the ramp started to come down. “I was seriously considering quitting last week.” Dar finally said.
Dar started up the Lexus. “I’m not going to quit on a failure.” She shifted her hands to the wheel, watching impatiently as the ferry deck hands began to direct traffic off the boat. “I’m just not going to do that.”
Kerry settled back as they started up the ramp, nodding a little to herself. “I like that answer.” She said. “It reminds me of something my father said, once.”
Dar barely kept from driving off the edge of the ferry base. “What?”
Kerry folded her arms. “He said, ‘Kerrison, if you ever go out in public and do something, you better do it right. If it lands on the page one of the Washington Post, you’ll spend a year in the back room washing dishes.’”
Dar blinked. “Did I just say that?” She asked, in an outraged tone.
“No.” Kerry nudged her. “Drive straight, hon.. they wont’ believe us if we say we missed it because you drove off the causeway.” She waited until they were underway again. “But his point was the same thing – when you do something, you should do it right, or don’t do it.”
“Oh. Okay.” The dark haired woman drummed her fingers on the wheel. “Yeah, I guess it is the same general idea, isn’t it?” She paused, then glanced at Kerry. “Did you listen to him?”
Kerry merely nodded, her expression shifting to one of quiet introspection. “One of the few times.” She added, after a moment. “So I’m right there with you, Dar. I don’t fail in public. Not if I can help it.”
They traded the causeway for the highway, and headed north.
“Why aren’t we moving?” Quest asked, as soon as the captain cleared the doorway. “We’ve been sitting here for an hour!”
The captain gave him a brief smile. “That is right.” He agreed. “And we will be sitting possibly for some hours more. There is a defect in the engine.”
Quest threw his hands up. “This piece of crap boat.”
“Ship.” The captain corrected him. “Mr. Quest, I am sorry if this disturbs you. However, we are outside the waters of the United States, and so you perhaps should just go and relax while we attend to this problem. I did warn you we could have some difficulties.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Quest grumbled. “I just want to be out of here. I can taste a decent glass of beer the closer we get to the other side.”
The captain shrugged both shoulders. “I do sympathise.” He said. “We too, are looking for some relief from the lives we’ve been forced to live these last few months.” He walked over to the window in the dining room, peering out into the darkness. “I am looking forward to going home.”
Quest snorted. “Hey, at least you had a break. I can’t believe you conned Roberts into buying the whole damn ship dinner.” He said. “Very slick.”
The captain did not turn. “I think the lady was glad to do it.”
“Lady?” Quest guffawed. “Get real.”
“I rather liked Ms. Roberts.” The older man twitched his jacket straight. “At any rate, I must return to the bridge. If there is further developments, I will inform you.” He walked to the door and slipped through it, not giving Quest a chance to intercept him.
“Prick.” Quest curled his lip. “You’ll be going home all right, old man. I know they’ll kick your ass right off this tub as soon as the check’s signed.” He put his feet up against the chair next to him and pushed back, rocking slowly in the rhythm of the ship’s motion.
A shadow caught his eye, and he looked over towards the big entrance to see Shari entering. “What do you want?” He asked sharply. “I thought I told you to stay upstairs and stop aggravating everyone.”
“Go screw yourself.” Shari told him bluntly. “You don’t tell me anything, you piece of shit.”
“You better watch your mouth.” Quest pointed at her. “You forget I can have you charged with being a stowaway. That’s big time trouble for a skuzzy dyke without any passport.”
Shari sat down near the window. “Don’t threaten me. I finally bought my way into that comm. office upstairs and got a phone call out.” She told him, with a sneer. “So my passport’s no longer an issue. You better hope you make this stupid trip worth my while, or maybe I’ll charge you with kidnapping.”
“Like anyone would kidnap you.” Quest laughed. “What a piece of shit you are. Is there anyone in this thing you didn’t screw over? Your partner? Roberts? Me? The media? Meyer? You were sleeping with everyone.”
“Look who’s talking.” Shari taunted him right back. “If you switched sides any more times you’d have split yourself in half, you horse’s ass.”
Quest started laughing. “I was right. We’re two of a kind.” He announced, with a cheerful grin. “Maybe if you’re not too obnoxious on the crossing, I’ll let you come work for me when I sign my contract with the new owners.”
“Don’t even think it.” Shari growled. “I don’t work for anyone.”
“Yeah, you sure didn’t do much for your little girlfriend. Bet she wishes she’d hooked up with your old flame.”
Quest laughed again. “Better think twice. I think you burned your bridges with your friend.”
Shari lapsed into a sullen stare at him.
“Who knows? Maybe you lucked out getting stuck on board.” Quest went on, with a smirk. “Wouldn’t you like a new start? I don’t’ think you’re leaving behind anything worth going back to.”
One of the crew entered, and paused awkwardly. “Uh.. excuse me.”
“Yeah? What?” Quest seemed glad of a new victim. “What’s your name again, Weenie?”
“Talley.” The man said. “The staff captain asked me to tell you that dinner is being served in the officer’s mess.”
“Tell them I said to bring it to me here.” Quest told him.
Shari got up. “If you’re so stupid you’d give those people a chance to poison the plate they’re bringing you, I don’t want to be here to see it.” She looked at Talley. “Where’s the place it’s being served?”
Talley gave her a mildly accepting look, and indicated the stairs. “Down there. I’ll show you.” He said. “And I’ll pass along your message, sir.”
Shari followed the young man down the stairs. “How do you like working for a jackass like that?”
Talley glanced at her, then shrugged. “He’s a clueless breeder. They’re all the same. He’ll get tired of the whole thing when we get to where we’re going, and take off.”
“Think so?” Shari asked.
Talley smirked. “I think he’ll be lucky he’s not hanging over the railing the rest of the crossing after I tell the staff he’s got to bring him his dinner.”
Shari chuckled dryly, but her thoughts kept going back to what Quest had said.
What, really, did she have to go back to?
But what if she could turn it all around, and make a deal with the new owners of the ships? Shari’s eyes glinted. She could pull her own miracle out of her ass this time, and screw the rest of them. She’d show up Dar, and she’d prove who was the real driving force behind Telegenics.
Dar paused just inside the back door to the studio to let her eyes wander over the space, trying to remember what it had looked like the last time she’d been there. After a moment, she shook her head and followed Kerry across to where a long table was set up against one wall.
Everything seemed to be painted black. Behind the table was a set of doors, one larger than the other, with a heavy seal and what looked like a police light mounted over it. It was flashing red, throwing annoying blurps of light around the room.
“Ah.” Graham was already there, and he walked over to them as they approached. He was dressed in a well fitted, conservative gray suit and appeared to be the successful businessman he in reality was. “We were taking bets whether we’d see you two here tonight.”
“Us, miss a party?” Kerry said. “Never. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I needed some closure out of this thing.”
“I agree.” Michelle joined them. “They’re doing individual interviews first.” She indicated the door. “And they’ve catered us. Go have some television food. Guarantee that doesn’t happen to any of us often.”
Dar touched Kerry’s back lightly. “I’ll grab you a coke.” She ducked away and headed for the table, leaving Kerry to fence with their rivals.
“Nice outfit.” Michelle complimented her.
“Thanks, you too.” Kerry replied, with automatic graciousness. “We got a call from your partner.”
“So did I.” Michelle didn’t miss a beat. “Did you arrange all that?”
Graham was merely watching them, his eyes flicking from Kerry to Michelle with interest.
“Sad to say, no.” Kerry said. “We were as surprised as you probably were.”
Kerry’s eyebrows twitched. “You weren’t?”
“No. I mean..” Michelle backed up hastily as she saw Kerry’s expression change. “What I meant was, I wasn’t surprised when I found out she’d gone on your ship to try and screw you over. Not that I knew she had.”
“Don’t start throwing things at me.” Michelle warned, with a wary grin. “This suit costs a fortune to dry clean.”
Kerry had to grin a little at that, lifting a hand and half shrugging to acknowledge the jibe. “We’re just a bunch of radicals at ILS, what can I tell you? I do have to admit I wasn’t expecting our admin staff to turn into culinary terrorists.” She glanced aside as Dar returned with two cups. “Thanks.”
“So, have you decided what you will tell them, Dar?” Graham asked, with a remarkable lack of artifice. “That’s what we were discussing before you arrived. What lies we came up with.”
Dar shrugged. “More or less.” She turned to Michelle. “You going to tell them about Shari?”
The smaller woman’s face scrunched up. “I’m on the fence.”
Just then the red light went off, and they all turned as the big door opened. A slim, blond woman with a pony tail and a huge clipboard looked out. “Okay, we’re about ready to start. Everyone here?”
The front door shoved open, and a sweating Mike joined them, a look of overbearing aggravation on his face. “Traffic sucks.” He announced crisply. “Sorry.”
The pony-tailed woman looked at her clipboard. “Are you Mike?” She asked. “You’re first.”
“Figures.” Mike dabbed at his forehead with his handkerchief. “This won’t take long. Keep a beer cold for me.” He edged past them and approached the woman, tugging the sleeves straight on his chocolate brown business suit.
The door closed behind him, and after a few moments, the red light went on. The rest of them lapsed into a pensive silence, standing in the middle of the depressingly dark stage.
Shari joined her new friend Talley at a formica table, setting down her tray with it’s dish of god only knew what and glass of chemical punch and taking a seat. The crew mostly ignored her, and chattered to each other as they relaxed together.
Most were young, but some weren’t, and there was a real mix of nationalities. In fact, Shari discovered, Talley was one of the very few Americans aboard.
“We don’t like hard work.” Talley explained, when asked about that. He selected a piece of mystery meat from the stew and ate it. “Americans don’t like working seven days a week with no time off, and crappy salary.”
“I doubt anyone does.” Shari offered, reasonably. “So why do it?”
“Travel.” Talley said. “Different place every day, different people.” He took a sip of the pseudo juice. “They give you room and board.. such as it is, so you can save money and put it away if you want to, or buy yourself stuff at every port, if you want to.”
It almost sounded appealing. “No attachments.” Shari mentioned.
“Exactly.” Talley nodded. “Which is why I think this whole hotel thing sucks so bad.”
“Yeah.” A young, willowy woman sat down next to him. “It’s nasty.”
“So you don’t think it’s a good idea?” Shari asked.
Both young people shrugged. “It’s better than scuttling the ships, I guess.” Talley said. “And we get to keep our jobs, which is more than the deck and engine guys got. They’re pissed.”
“They’re weird.” The girl said, her Australian accent rolling the words out. “But they’ll go off and find some other bucket of bolts to cruise round in, you know it.”
“Rather than working for.. what was that..” Shari fished gingerly.
“Hundermann, yeah.” Talley supplied promptly. “I guess they’ll be okay. Pretty good benefits.”
Hundermann. “Yeah, those guys.”
“For me, it’s good.” The girl said. “I’ve been wanting to move shoreside, and get in with these people, they’ve got a lot of good properties all over the continent.”
“Hm.” Talley nodded. “I guess. I’ll just miss being at sea.”
“Join the Navy.” Shari suggested. “I hear the food’s better.”
The two looked at their plates, and then at her, and then at each other. Talley sighed. “Boy, I miss those IT guys. They really knew how to lay it on.” He lamented. “It was nice to be treated like human beings for a change, wasn’t it, Mandy?”
“It was.” The girl agreed. “I liked that lot. Clever boys, and handsome girls. Wish they’d stayed on, and I’m terribly mad at you all for letting them be tricked like that, with Staff.”
Talley had the grace to look guilty.
Shari bit her tongue to keep from giving her opinion of Dar and her staff. She needed information right now more than the satisfaction that savaging the old bitch would give her. “So.. Hundermann.. they a big outfit?”
Talley turned to her in relief. “Pretty big, for over there I guess. They’ve got a lot of unique places all around.. castles and stuff like that. Exclusive.”
“Maybe we’ll get staying priviledges.” Mandy elbowed him. “Do a tour on time off and stay in a castle, I’d like that.”
“I think they’re going to do up each ship in a different era, or culture or something.” Talley said. “Sounds pretty cool.”
It did, actually. Shari felt a grudging appreciation for the idea.
“So.. are you part of Mr. Quest’s company?” Talley suddenly asked. “I thought you were, but if you don’t know about the new people..”
Crap. “Nah. I’m from one of the other ships.” Shari said. “I was just bringing something on this one when you all just up and left. I got stuck here.”
“Oh!” Mandy looked concerned. “My gosh.. are you staying on the crossing? Don’t you have clothes or anything? That’s horrid!”
“Yeah, well, that’s the breaks.” Shari got up, picking up her mostly untouched tray. “Thanks for the company. See you later.” She deposited the congealing food onto a dish cart and strode purposefully for the door, an idea growing in her mind that made her smile.
Dar had tired of standing around bullshitting, and she’d hunted around the big, empty stage until she located a few old folding chairs stacked against one wall. She called the others over, and they set up the chairs in a circle, near enough to the long table to replenish themselves from it when they wanted.
“Excuse me, we didn’t rent those.” The girl behind the long table cautioned them.
“You should have.” Dar told her. “Just be glad we didn’t come over there and sit in your table.”
The girl subsided, reseating herself meekly behind the catering.
Kerry tucked her feet under her chair and let her hands rest on her knees. The big room was well air conditioned, at least, and with any luck they’d be done soon and they could get out of here. Her social gene prodded her, and she cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. “How about we all go grab some dinner and end this project on a civilized note?”
“You, civilized, and dinner scares me.” Michelle said, but with a smile. “But I’ll risk it. Graham?”
“Surely.” Graham placidly answered. “My company is already sending hit men after me and I doubt I will survive Monday, so why not get a dinner out of it at the least? Perhaps we can all pass around resumes.”
“Ah, yes.” Michelle winced. “Isn’t that the truth? Not all of us have as understanding an upper management as you do, Dar. That was a pretty impressive performance by your CEO.” She took a sip of ice tea. ‘You have him very well trained.”
“Alastair’s not trained.” Kerry hastily spoke up as she sensed the stiffening of Dar’s body next to her. “He just trusts Dar implicitly.”
“That is what I have heard.” Graham said. “In fact, to be perfectly frank, Dar, it’s quite advantageous to your boss that your preferences are so explicit as otherwise many would assume something quite salacious between the two of you.”
“They have.” Dar shrugged. “He and I joke about it sometimes.” She pulled her PDA out and checked it, then returned it to her purse with a sigh.
The rotating light went off, and the door opened. Mike came out, looking as though he’d drunk sour lemonade.
“Ah.. Graham?” The pony tailed girl asked, peering politely at them. “You’re next, please.”
Mike came over and took the chair Graham vacated, sitting down in it with a creak of protesting metal. “Hope you’ve got a cup on.” He advised Graham.
Graham paused, made a face, then continued on, shaking his head as he walked through the door.
“Do they make cups for women?” Mike asked. “Cause I think there’s a Wal-mart nearby if you want to run out and get some.”
Dar, Kerry, and Michelle exchanged looks. Kerry cleared her throat gently. “Are they wearing cups?” She indicated the now closed door.
“I’m wearing pointy shoes.” Michelle displayed her fashionable stilettos. “This could be fun.”
Shari browsed the screen, searching out details. She’d found Hundemann’s website easily enough, once she’d paid off the communications officer to give up his laptop for a few minutes. The man hadn’t wanted to, and after she’d taken a quick look at his browser history, she could see why.
No wonder they’d liked Dar. She gave them freaking internet. None of the others had done it, and they sure hadn’t, since that would have cost money she wasn’t about to spend on this shitball bid. “Wonder if they even had any clue how badly they’d have lost this.” She shook her head.
Hundemann’s site was boring as hell. She scrolled through pages and pages of bullshit, maps, site plans, and marketing crap so bland even she couldn’t get through it. The one thing that didn’t seem to be there was a contact number and address.
Figures. Shari kept hunting.
“Here.” Shari held out another twenty dollar bill without looking. “Go away.”
The bill was removed from her fingers, and a moment later, the door closed. Shari drummed her fingers on the keyboard, then thought of something else, and opened up a search page. “Don’t want riff raff to call you, huh? Well, you issue stock, so you’ve got to have an address somewhere, baby. C’mon.”
She ran a search against public companies, and found nothing. Then she tried against the SEC database, and finally, finally, there was something. She scanned the results, and leaned forward. “Ah hah.” The company’s officers were listed, most of whom were not familiar to her.
“Sir Melton Gilberthwait.” Shari rolled her eyes. “Oh, give me a break. Sounds like a cartoon character from Rocky and Bullwinkle.” She pulled out a pen and wrote it down nevertheless, and copied down the telephone number beside it. “Okay, old boy. I’ll just give you a ring, and see if I can’t make you a deal you can’t say no to.”
She checked her watch. “Well your office hours say six am, so I hope that’s not bullshit like the rest of your website is.” She put the piece of paper away, and closed the browser. With a glance at the door, she then walked over to the rack of computer equipment and looked at it.
A smoked glass door obscured the contents, and on the front was taped a sign off sheet verifying that the gear behind the door was operational.
It listed all the components. Shari scanned it, not really recognizing most of the individual pieces of machinery, but knowing the major parts from things Michelle had said. It was expensive stuff, and she had fought tooth and nail with Michelle to get her to order the cheaper components she’d found on the internet instead of the kind Dar had used.
Michelle had flat refused. She should have known right then it was all bullshit. It had nothing to do with competing with ILS, and everything to do with impressing Dar. And Michelle had said she was fixated? What a blind fucker she’d turned out to be.
Shari got to the end of the list, and the signature line where ILS’s installer had guaranteed the install.
The name was familiar – a firmly scrawled D. Roberts. Shari stared at the name for a long time, her lip curling up into an unconscious snarl. She reached out and her fingers tensed against the paper, on the verge of crumpling it.
Then she dropped her hand, and just spat on it instead. “I am going to beat you.” She told the page. “And you are never, ever going to forget it.”
Dar walked up and down the cracked sidewalk outside the studio. It was getting late, and the traffic in front of the building had settled down to a steady trickle, the orange streetlamps bathing everything in an annoying color that strained her eyes to look at it.
She checked her PDA again, finding nothing in the in box. Hell, Hans was probably out at the local pub.. Dar checked her watch. No, Hans was probably sleeping, without a care in the world for her anxieties on this side of the planet.
She could bullshit the television producers, but there was a warning bell ringing in the back of her head that reminded her that Meyer was the type who’d pick up the phone and call the Europeans to find out if she was lying or not.
That.. she didn’t want to deal with. Dar paced down the walk, dodging past two women jogging as she tried to work off some of her nervous energy. It wasn’t easy. She really felt like doing some sparring, and she felt bad about having left Kerry inside making small talk.
She stopped near a bus bench, and leaned against the telephone pole next to it.
What could she do? Dar sorted through her options. Maybe she could tell half truths, and just gloss over any specifics. Say they were working on a deal, which was true. Say she was working with a transcontinental partner…which was almost true since she had no real agreement with Hans.
But she was aware that this was going to be filmed, and that meant it could come back and bite her in the ass big time, if everything fell through or worse, if Hans found some European partner and they cut her out of it. She would look like an idiot.
Dar hated looking like an idiot. It might even be said that she’d made up the story just to make the company look good, and since that would affect the stock, there could be legal issues for her with that.
She was, as she found herself being reminded recently, a corporate officer and they were a public company.
Dar turned, to find an old woman taking a seat on the bench next to her. “Yes?”
“Is this the G bus?” The woman peered at Dar fuzzily, squinting through a pair of glasses with lenses at least a half an inch thick.
Dar straightened and looked around, spotting a sign tacked to the telephone pole. It bore a legend that probably required most of Dar’s years of schooling to decipher and went a long way to explain why so few residents bothered using the transit system. “Yeah.” She finally said. “Where are you going?”
Of course. “Yeah, that’s the bus.” Dar agreed.
“Good. Now if the stupid thing comes, it’ll be a good thing. Are you waiting for the bus? You could sell that nice jacket and take a taxi, y’know.”
Dar had to smile. “No, I’m not waiting for the bus.”
“So why are you standing there? Go home!” The woman scolded her. “It’s late! Does your mother know you’re out here?”
Dar’s jaw dropped a little, and she clicked it shut. “She does.”
“She should be ashamed. Go on home, young lady.”
Bemused and defeated, Dar left the safety of her telephone pole and escaped back down the sidewalk towards the studio. She got back to the door without any clearer idea of what she was going to do, but she was glad enough to trade the muggy night heat for the cold blandness inside.
Kerry looked up as she entered, and gave her a wry smile. She was sitting with Mike and Graham, and apparently Michelle was now undergoing the grilling.
Of course, Kerry was depending on her too. Dar felt the added weight on her shoulders. She didn’t want to disappoint Kerry, or Alastair, or the board, or the company or her parents…
Jesus. Dar went back to her seat and dropped into it, feeling silently overwhelmed.
Kerry reached casually over and circled Dar’s arm with her fingers, rubbing gently with the edge of her thumb. “Graham just told me they’re being pretty brutal in there.”
Dar lifted her brows.
“I think we should just keep our cool, and relax.”
Sure, easy for you to say. Dar scowled silently.
“Actually I think we should tell them we bought the ships.” Kerry continued blandly. “You know I had that budget I had to use or lose for this quarter.”
Graham snorted wearily.
“Tell them your dad is going to recommission them as a coastal defense.”
Mike rolled his eyes, but laughed anyway.
A grudging smile appeared on Dar’s face, as she looked into her partner’s eyes. “He’d make a damn good Admiral” She said, understanding the banter for what it was. “Think you could keep a straight face if I pulled that on them?”
“No.” Kerry admitted, with a grin. “But I’m sure you’ll think of something, and if not.. we can just start kissing each other. That should distract them.”
Both men started laughing, mostly at Dar’s expression. Finally, Dar started laughing too, because with the tension she was feeling, she needed to do something.
As Kerry had said, she’d figure out something. Dar took Kerry’s hand in hers and squeezed it. And if not, well then, Plan B had it’s merits, too.
Shari dug more bills out of her wallet, glad like hell she’d stopped at the bank before she’d headed for the pier that day. She’d figured the last minute crap was going to cost, and she knew better than to trust in the altruism of her staff or the good will of the dock workers.
None of that, of course, would have been figured into the bid. She hadn’t even been sure she was going to tell Michelle about it if she’d paid anyone off, though she knew her erstwhile partner had no real moral objection to the practice.
It was just get it done, that was all. That’s what they’d decided to do when they’d gone into this whole rigamarole – to do whatever it took to win the contract. Shari counted out her money. To win the contract and beat ILS.
She thought Michelle was on the program with her on that. Things had been going great for them, right up until fucking Orlando. They’d had it all planned out – starting with making a star appearance at the convention.
Then Dar had shown up, and it all started going wrong.
Just like always.
She tucked half the money away in her jeans pocket and folded the other half, glancing at the scrap of paper with the Hundemann’s contact name. “Well, not this time.” She informed the scribbling. “Now, where’s that little Ruskie?”
She opened the door to the communications office, but found it surprisingly empty. Every other time she’d come in she’d found the communications officer hunkered down over his desk but this time the padded gray seat was barren, and she wasn’t nearly one to look a gift horse in the mouth when it presented itself.
With a grin, she slipped inside and locked the door behind her, pocketing the folded twenties she’d tucked inside her right hand. No sense in wasting her resources, eh? She sat down at the console table and picked up the phone, pausing to straighten out the small bit of paper before she composed herself to dial.
She checked her watch. Only quarter to four am in Europe, and she suspected her call would go unanswered. If it was a business number, though, she could leave a message and at least make some contact. She cracked her knuckles and paused briefly, considering what to say.
Despite the fact that it went against most of her personality, marketing was what she’d chosen to specialize in. She thought about what might make a good ‘hook’ for the possibly stuffy, probably stuck up continentals on the other end of the phone.
Should she be aggressive? That was her normal mode and the mode she knew her rival felt most comfortable with as well. The only difference was, she admitted privately to herself, she’d never quite gotten that switch to sexy charm that Dar did so well, the one that could turn a frothing adversary into a drooling ape in roughly ten seconds.
She definitely hadn’t had that when they’d been dating. Shari had been shocked to find herself snared by it long afterward.
So, possibly not aggressive with the Euros. She turned her thoughts to something more productive. Her few contacts with overseas vendors had taught her they didn’t really appreciate that American style approach, at least not very often.
Respectful. Shari nodded grudgingly, then she dialed the number, and waited, listening to the foreign sounding buzz in her ear.
The door light went off, and it opened so quickly afterward that it was obvious Michelle had started out before the session was over. One look at her face confirmed it, and if sparks really could fly from someone’s eyes, the painted walls of the studio would have gone up in an instant.
“Uh oh.” Kerry brushed a speck of dust from her sleeve. “That doesn’t look good.”
“Hm.” Dar stood up as Michelle approached. “Problem?”
“Multiple sessions of triple digit jackassedness.” Michelle replied succinctly. “Good luck. Dar. For once, I hope to hell you take your reputation to the absolute limit and eunuch those people.” She sat down in the chair Dar had just vacated and sat back, one toe tapping on the concrete floor in agitation.
“Hm.” Dar shifted a little, unsure of whether to plant her hands on her hips or cross her arms to punctuate the statement.
“Ms.. uh.. Roberts?” The girl with the pony tail interrupted her dilemma.
Dar glanced over at her.
“Could you come with me, please?”
Dar put one hand on Kerry’s shoulder, already sensing the motion as her partner went to stand up. “Depends.” She replied.
“I said, it depends.” Dar repeated. “Tell your friends inside there I have no intention of coming out with an expression like Michelle’s here. So if that’s what they intend, forget it.”
The girl stared at her. “Ma’am?” She peered behind her. “Do you want to be in this show?”
“No.” Dar began to wonder if the echoes in the big room were affecting the girl’s hearing. “I don’t want to be in this thing. So go tell those guys either be civil or I’m outta here. Got me?”
The girl disappeared, though before she left she gave Dar a look usually reserved for the mentally deficient. The door closed behind her, but the light remained off, and the room fell back into uncomfortable silence.
“So.” Dar addressed Michelle. “What’s the deal?”
Michelle’s lips were twitching slightly. “You only get away with that because you’re really the one they want to get, you know that, right?”
“Dar, you’re not going in there by yourself.” Kerry interrupted.
“Listen, everyone else only had one representative.” Dar told her, giving her shoulder a little squeeze. “If there are asses to be kicked, I can handle that.”
“That’s not the point.” The blond woman got up. “This was my contract.”
And so it was. Dar inclined her head in concession. “True.” She said. “Let’s see what our little friend comes back and says.”
“They actually asked me where Shari was.” Michelle supplied. “I didn’t tell them. It seemed to piss them off.” She eyed Dar dourly. “You..” She paused. “Okay, let me be honest. We screwed them over for their little happy ending, so now the deal is, scandal in corporate America. Get the drift?”
Dar cocked her head a little. “No.”
“They went after some pretty dirty details.” Mike spoke up finally. “Brought up a deal that went south for us, two bloody years ago.”
“Skeletons, yes.” Graham nodded. “Fortunately, most of ours are fairly benign.”
Kerry scratched her jaw. “Hon.” She patted Dar on the side. “I don’t think we have any skeletons left that aren’t either tattooed on my chest or were featured on national television at least twice.” She looked at the rest of them. “Really.”
“Hmph.” Michelle snorted.
Graham pursed his lips and shrugged.
“You’ve got a skeleton tattooed on your chest?” Mike asked ingeniously.
“Let’s go.” Dar decided she was over it. “C’mon.” She took Kerry by the arm and started for the inner door. “Let’s get this over with.”
The phone answered on what seemed like the thirtieth ring. “Hundemann Incorporated.” A cultured voice echoed lightly through the phone. “How may I help you?”
Well, at least it wasn’t a cleaningwoman. Or at least, she didn’t think so. “Good morning.” Shari replied. “I know it’s very early there, and I apologize for calling at this hour.”
“Not a problem.” The voice sounded a touch warmer. “We’re quite used to calls at all hours.”
Oh, really? Shari found that interesting. “Ah huh.”
“The hostel business is round the clock, as it were.” The woman clarified. “How may I forward your inquiry?”
“Of course.” Shari said. “I was hoping to speak with Sir Melton Gilberthwaite? I completely understand if he’s not available, perhaps I can leave word for him with an assistant?’
“Please hold one moment. I will see who’s in at that location.” The operator sounded almost cheerful. “I think they had a Far East meeting today, so let me just check.”
A soft classical tune began playing in her ear, and Shari sat back, wondering if luck wasn’t coming her way at last.
“Look, I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but I’ve got a schedule I need to keep.” The woman with the pony tail was saying. “We’ve got this studio booked in an hour for an night shoot with MTV.”
Meyer gave her a look. “All right, hold your tits, sister. I’ll get this straightened out.” He brushed passed her and stalked towards the door. “Pain the ass little..” He stopped short, nearly crashing into Dar as she came through the door with Kerry right behind her. “Oh.”
“Oh.” Dar didn’t even slow down. She came right up to him and poked him in the chest. “Oh, you’ve got about ten minutes of my time to wrap up your game, Meyer, because I’m not wasting one more minute more than that on you.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Meyer backed up a step. “Just who do you..”
“You know who I think I am.” Dar didn’t let up. “So go over there, and put up or shut up.” She gave him a shove for good measure, aware of Kerry’s close presence at her back. “Ten minutes!”
Meyer was caught offbalance, and so he gave way, turning and moving back towards the filming area. “Fine.” He tossed back over his shoulder. “Go with her. She’ll get you ready.”
Dar studied the space. Inside a ring of lights and two cameras on dollies were two high directors chairs in a dark fabric. It was all very stark and utilitarian, and to her eyes, profoundly depressing. “Hmph.” She ignored Pony Tail and ducked between the two cameras, whose operators were staring at her in fascination. “Think you could spare a few dollars for fresh bedsheets for this?” She pointed at the backdrop, which had several tears held together with gaffers tape.
Meyer just looked at her, then went back to studying a piece of paper, murmuring to a slim, gray haired woman standing next to him.
“Okay.. ah.” Pony Tail hurried over. “Let’s just get you .. uh.. both.. uh.. ready.”
Dar took a seat and leaned her elbows on the chair arms. “I’m ready.”
“Me too.” Kerry hopped up onto the next chair.
Pony Tail stopped short. “Do you want us to.. “She made some vague hand gestures towards their heads. “Um. We usually want to do a little hair, a little makeup..”
“No, we’re fine.” Kerry responded, in a kind tone. “But thanks anyway. If we crack the lenses, I’ll give you a credit card.”
The girl shrugged, and walked off, shaking her head.
The two cameramen started to fiddle with their controls, making the cameras bob up and down like some odd animals, moving in and out on where Dar and Kerry were sitting. Dar put up with the show for a minute, then cleared her throat. “Meyer? Nine minutes.”
Meyer’s head jerked up. “Wh… oh, shit.” He glared at Pony Tail. “You didn’t say you were ready.” He folded the piece of paper and straightened his jacket before he walked over to them, sitting down in a chair tucked up against where the cameras were.
“They wouldn’t let me do anything.” Pony Tail shrugged. “But that works for me, because if you get out of here on time, I can go get some tacos before Gloria Estefan shows up.” She signaled to one of the camera guys, who adjusted some lights and focused them on Dar and Kerry.
“Forgot my sunglasses.” Kerry lamented.
“Please be quiet.” Meyer instructed. “I’m going to start asking questions. I’ll address you by name, and I expect the person I’m addressing to answer me.”
Dar chuckled softly under her breath.
Meyer looked up. “Excuse me? Did you say something, Ms. Roberts?”
“Nope.” Dar interlaced her fingers. “But I will. So let’s get started.”
Meyer gave her an unpleasant smile. “Hope you remember you said that, Ms. Roberts. Very well. Jenna, give me a clapper please, and we’ll go.”
His assistant moved around in front of him and held a cliché quality film clapboard before the camera. “ILS takedown, first pass.” She said in an unemotional voice. “Action.”
“Thank you for holding.” The woman’s voice came back. “One moment, all right? Someone in that office can speak with you now.”
“Thanks.” Shari glanced at the door, which had just issued some suspicious rattling sounds as though the handle were being tried. She drummed the fingers of her free hand on the desk, and hoped it wouldn’t take as long for the next secretary to answer. Last thing she needed them to hear was a bunch of those ship jerks yelling.
The line buzzed softly, then, thankfully was answered. “Good Morning, executive operations. This is Patricia. Can I help you?’
The door rattled again. “Good morning.” Shari half turned away from the door. “Yes, if it’s possible, I would like to speak with Sir Melton Gilberthwaite?”
“Sir Melton’s on a conference call at the moment.” The woman answered promptly. “May I enquire as to what this is about?’
Hm. Good question. “It’s a business matter.” Shari said. “I was referred to him in regards to one of his properties.. to possibly provide some services.”
“Ah.” Patricia cleared her throat. “I see. Well, I can’t say when he’ll be done. Perhaps you could leave your name and a contact number?”
Damn, damn, damn. Shari glared at the phone in frustration. Not only didn’t she know what telephone line the damn thing was connected to, she had no idea how long she’d have possession of it. “I’m between locations at the moment.” She temporized. “Could you maybe give me an idea of when I might try back?”
“Difficult to tell.” The woman responded. “And there’s someone waiting to speak with him here in the office. Perhaps two hours? He should have a few moments free before he breaks for breakfast.”
Shari made a face, her fingers tensing on the paper. “That could be difficult.” She sighed. “Thanks for letting me know – can I leave my name with you, at least?”
“Of course.” Patricia replied, then hesitated. “Oh, wait. I hear them taking a quick breather. Maybe I can squeeze you in. Hang on.” She put Shari on hold, leaving her to listen once again to transatlantic classical tunes.
“C’mon.. c’mon.” Shari glanced over her shoulder, hearing now a definite rattle, and the sound of upset voices outside. “Shut up you assholes… there’s no one you need to call this late and your porn sites’ll wait a few minutes.”
Vivaldi played on in her ear unrelentingly.
Meyer cleared his throat slightly. “Ms. Roberts.”
“That’s my name.” Dar responded promptly. “Next question?”
Meyer waved his hand. “Cut.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Ms. Roberts, can you cut the bullshit, please?”
“Why? You won’t.” Dar twiddled her thumbs. “Six minutes.” She caught a glimpse of Pony Tail out of the corner of her eye, smirking at Meyer. “Want your quote or not?”
The man sat back. “Roll.” He rotated his finger in the air, waiting for the belated clap of the board as Pony Tail hurried back over and snapped it. “Ms. Roberts, you’re company’s down thirty percent on contract renewals, your outlooking business is lousy, and you’ve just spent a million dollars on a paper boat you can’t even use to take pot shots at. What do you tell your stockholders, Monday morning?”
Dar had seriously been expecting a personal attack, and now she had to stop and consider what kind of answer she could give to a legitimate business one.
And it was legitimate, they all knew it. Even Kerry knew it. Dar could feel the sudden, small shifts of her partner’s body close by, Kerry’s unconscious fight or flight reflexes surging into action.
So here she was, right down to it. No more time to bullshit, no more time to wonder what the hell to do, just time to put on display why Alastiar paid her as much as he did.
And why was that, exactly? Dar shrugged caution off to the winds. Hell, if she was going to go down, might as well go down in the biggest ass fireworks display she could come up with. “Me?” She inquired mildly. “I’m not going to tell them anything.”
Meyer leaned forward, his eyes glinting.
“It’s not my job to tell them anything.” Dar cut him off before he could get another dig in. “My job is to take the company and it’s clients into the future of technology with confidence and competence, and that, Mr. Meyer, is exactly what I do.”
Nice sound bite. Kerry complimented her partner silently.
“That doesn’t answer that question, Ms. Roberts.” Meyer replied mildly. “Because no matter who tells them, that answer comes from you. So, again, what is it you’re going to say to justify what you did?”
Okay, so Meyer was pretty good. “Do I have to justify it?” Dar asked.
“Of course you do.” Meyer answered, in that same, calm tone. “You’re an officer in a publicly held company.”
“Exactly. So what if my explanation breaks the confidentiality clause that office holds me to?” Dar delicately pulled out her thinnest, sharpest rapier and probed with it. “Surely you can’t expect me to do that.”
Warily, Mayer edged back. “Are you saying there is something you’re holding back?”
The man shifted, as though he wanted to get up and approach Dar. Dar merely smiled charmingly at him. There was doubt in his expression now, a frustrated wondering what Dar was up to. She knew she couldn’t fence with him for long, but it was nice to have this one moment of sweet and very perceptible victory.
“You are, and I think you might want to let us in on it, because you might not get another chance, from what I hear.” Meyer answered, with a triumphant smile of his own. “So, I’ll ask one more time, Ms. Roberts, what do you say to the people who trusted you with their money as to how you just squandered it?”
Ball. Her court. Shit.
Dar was very aware of Kerry’s eyes on her, as well as the cameras, and suddenly she just relaxed and let the anxiety go. “What do I say? I say to them, count your dividends, ladies and gents. That million I tossed onto the table bought me back a deal from the new owners for a hundred times that, at least.”
Oh. God. Kerry listened to the outright lie and fought to keep her face from reacting.
“Oh really.” Meyer said. “Interesting, since I have it on great authority he doesn’t deal with Yankees.”
Dar’s eyes twinkled gently. “I ain’t no Yankee.” She drawled.
“And we have many, many transatlantic partners.” Kerry chimed in for the first time. “One of the great advantages we bring to our clients.”
Without missing a beat, Meyer pulled out his cell phone.
“Hello? Yes, one moment please. I was able to get Sir Milton for you.” The secretary sounded somewhat smug and pleased with herself. “It’s only for a moment, though.”
“Perfect, that’s all I need.” Shari assured her. “Honest.”
The line clicked through, and she heard a deep throat clearing. “Hello?” She ventured.
“Yes? Hello? What is this?” A gruff voice barked at her. “Who’s speaking?”
“Good morning, sir.. thanks for taking a moment to chat with me.” Shari got out quickly. “My names…” Her head jerked up as the door slammed inward, and the captain appeared with the communications engineer right behind him. “Ah, just a second…”
“Get that.” The captain pointed at the phone. “You men, take hold of her, and quickly.”
“Wait!” Shari got up and started to back away, but the engineer was too fast for her. He grabbed the phone, it’s end issuing broken snatches of puzzled outrage. “Wait! NO! Stop!”
The engineer slammed the phone down, shoving her away and cursing at her in Russian.
“Get away from me.” Shari warned the two big seaman who now headed for her. “Don’t you touch me!” She hit the wall with her back, but in the small space, she had no where to go and they grabbed her arms with rough familiarity. “Stop it!”
“Shut up, woman.” The captain ordered. “Or I will have them gag you. It is your choice.”
“I’ll have the law on you!” Shari screamed.
“Idiot!” The captain shouted back. “Is it not obvious that here, I am the law?” He looked at the men. “Take her down to the tender shell dock.”
Shari realized in a state of shock that she was no longer in control of her own destiny. The two men lifted her up between them, their expressionless faces not even registering her as they stared past her and shoved her out the door. She didn’t even think of struggling, feeling the strength in the hands the gripped her, and for the first time, a whitewash of fear came over her.
Oh my god. “All I did was use the damn phone!” She suddenly called back over her shoulder. “I’ll pay for it! Jesus!”
The captain had already disappeared, leaving the communications engineer to watch them go, a big grin on his face. He lifted his hand and waved at her, then slowly let his fingers close until only one was uplifted.
“God damn it!” Shari disappeared down the stairs between her captors, heading downward.
“Stupid bitch.” The engineer commented, with a shake of his head.
“Loud, as well.” The captain reappeared. “It is good you came to get me, Igor. Now we will rid ourselves of this noisy piece of garbage, eh?”
“Eh.” The engineer nodded.
“What in the hell was that?” Sir Milton stared at the phone in outrage, tossing it from him onto the small table. “Patricia, what nonsense is this? Nothing on that line but a bunch of gibberish.”
“Sorry, sir. It was a lady.” The woman hurried over and replaced the phone. “Something about a business matter .. she wouldn’t leave a name.”
“Pah. Someone trying to sue me for paternity again, more likely. Don’t trust women further than you can throw them, Patricia.”
“Of course not, sir.” The aide gave him a brief smile. “Would you like some tea? I have some ready for you.”
“Damn straight I do, and who’s that out there?” The older man barked. “I see a shadow! Hello!”
“Oh, sir.. it’s just someone wanting a bit of your time, I told him he had to wait f.. oh, sir, please, do wait outside..”
Sir Milton slapped his hand on the table. “Quiet, girl.” He ordered, peering through the shadows. “Ah!” He straightened a little in surprise as the newcomer became visible. “Bloody hell, it’s you!”
“It is.” The visitor clasped his hands behind his back, and ducked his head as Patricia hurried past. “I know that you did not expect me.” He said. “But I have something you will be interested in, that I promise.”
Patricia paused at the doorway. “I’m terribly sorry sir.” She said. “Do you know this person? He didn’t say so, or I would have brought him in before now. “
Sir Milton snorted. “Know him? Bugger’s my godson. Sit down you damn idiot and if she brings you tea, you drink it, hear me? No bloody arguments.”
The visitor circled the small table and took a seat, folding his hands over one knee and issuing a polite smile. “Tea would be good, yes.”
“Tea, Patricia. Tea.” Sir Milton made a motion with one hand. “Now, what’s this all about? Haven’t seen you in a dog’s age and here you are just like a bad pence turning up in my pocket again.”
“You will not think so when I am done speaking.”
“I do say.”
“I said, let me go you apes!” Shari knew it was probably futile, but she struggled anyway, figuring that if she threw them all down the god damn stairs at least she’d have the pleasure of landing on the fuckers. Her arms ached where the men gripped her, and as she fought against them the pain went from an ache to an outright searing. “God damn it!!!”
Stolidly, the two men dragged her down the last flight of steps and into the dark, cold loading area she’d first come down to the ship in. All the sea doors were closed tightly, but the creaking of the metal around them and the motion attested to the rising seas just beyond the steel walls. “Uh.” One man indicated a door at the far side of the hold and they dragged her over to it. Pushing it open.
Inside, it smelled strongly of diesel, rust, and the sea. “STOP!!!” Shari yelled desperately. “Help! Help!!!”
The second man pulled the door closed behind them and they started down a last flight of metal stairs, their boots and her curses echoing in the stairwell.
After the last step was a platform, facing yet another hatch, this one dripping with more grease and covered in more rust than even the ones up on the deck above. A series of letters and numbers were painted on the inside of the hatch, and the first man used his free hand to lift up the receiver of a pristine, incongruous beige phone mounted firmly on the wall. He dialed a number. “Open 12.” He muttered briefly after it was answered, then hung up.
Shari paused to catch her breath, her throat aching from the screams. It was quiet for a moment, then a loud boom almost scared her senseless, and she jerked back as the hydraulic lifting mechanism began to open the hatch.
It groaned in protest, and after it slid upward about a foot, the scent of the sea washed strongly in along with a bit of the ocean itself as a wave came up over the edge of the door. “Oh my god.” Shari stared at it, the liquid pooling down in a grate and disappearing.
The wind blasted in a moment later as the door continued to rise, whipping them with sea water. Shari found herself being held tight, as she stared out the hatch at a very dark, very rolling sea.
There was nothing past the dim light the ship threw off. Just a faint suggestion of white ruffling, and a hint of what might have been cloud shadows to differentiate between the sky and the water.
The two men gazed impassively out at it, obviously unimpressed. “Gonna see fish.” One commented jerking Shari’s arm. “Betta keep y’mouth shut.”
Shari felt her throat close, and for once she took someone’s advice without commenting on it. They weren’t really going to throw her out, were they?
A door opened to her right, and she looked quickly, to see a small, oval door folding in towards her, as the captain stepped over the sill and joined them. He turned and closed the portal after him, dogging the locks shut on what was obviously a watertight entryway. “Gentlemen.” He greeted the two sailors, who both nodded respectfully but kept hold of Shari.
The captain went to the open hatch, stepping lightly on the edge and leaning out into the salt spray. He appeared to enjoy it, turning his head from side to side and then shaking it to rid it of it’s moisture. He stepped back and glanced at Shari. “A fine night to be on the sea. As you shall find out shortly.”
“You can’t put me out there.” Shari kept her voice even, with a great deal of effort.
“Of course I can.” The captain replied, with a smile. “I am the master of the ship. These men will do whatever I ask of them, and we are in international waters.”
Shari just looked at him.
“You are a stowaway. You have no papers. You have no identification.” The man went on. “I have no obligation to carry you in my vessel, save that obligation that one has to any decent creature out here. However, you are no decent creature, and so, I will have you off my ship.”
“There are laws.” Shari managed to get out.
“Yes, there are.” The captain agreed. “But you will be in no position to argue them.” He stepped to one side. “Bring her here.” He sniffed reflectively. “You might want to kick your shoes off.”
Frozen in disbelief, Shari could only stare at him as she was dragged forward to the opening, a scream erupting only when she was shoved roughly out the hatch into the dark sea beyond.
“I’m sure you won’t mind if I just check up on your brilliant maneuvering, right?” Meyer held the phone up to his ear, as Pony Tail hurried to attach a small microphone to it. “Getting this?” He asked over his shoulder.
“Got it, sir.” The man behind the sound console replied. “Got it all.”
Dar had never considered herself to possess any acting skills whatsoever, and she knew the only thing keeping her from blowing everything was that she was too shocked to react. She let the knowledge of what Meyer was doing slip past her, and cocked her head, studying the mechanism of the camera instead.
There was nothing she could do. She leaned her elbow on the arm of the chair and propped her head up on her fist, resisting the urge to whistle aimlessly. She didn’t dare so much as look at Kerry, and she could only imagine what facial expression her partner had.
Benign interest would have described it. Kerry leaned back in her chair and rested her elbows on the arms, appearing as relaxed as one could in front of two cameras. She’d had more practice than Dar had, and one of the first thing she’d learned as a young girl was how to not let the press know when they’d gotten to her.
They were about to be busted on camera. Kerry reconciled herself to that, and didn’t regret, even so, the course Dar had taken to get them where they were. If this was how it ended, then it was, and the worst thing that could possibly come out of this was…
“Hello, yes. I need to speak immediately with Sir Melton Gilberthwaite.” Meyer said. “It’s Jason Meyer. Urgent. Put him on the phone.”
Pretentious jackass. Kerry wrinkled her nose. “I’m pretty sure Sir Melton doesn’t appreciate being summoned, Mr. Meyer.”
Meyer looked at her, but didn’t reply.
Dar tipped her head back and studied the overhead lights. They hung from a bare, metal bar grid suspended from the ceiling, and it occurred to her that the stage, like the entire project, was just one big fascade in the service of someone else’s view of reality.
“I don’t care. Put him on the phone.” Meyer insisted. “I told you, this is urgent. I’m filming, and I need to speak with him at once.”
Maybe they would get lucky. Dar pondered. Maybe Sir Melton would tell Meyer to kiss his ass.
“Thank you. Sir Melton? This is Jason Meyer.”
Ah well. Dar tilted her head back to level and regarded Meyer. It had been a good old college try, right? Least she went out with a boom, instead of a whimper.
“That’s right. Glad you remember me. Listen, I was just speaking with someone who says they’re a new business partner of yours, and I just wa.. excuse me?”
Dar’s ear twitched.
“No, no, um… no it’s ILS, and th..” Meyer listened, his face turning pale even as Dar watched. “Well, I’m very sorry, but.. well, no, you see.. oh, uh.. I’m glad you’ve made a deal bu… sir? Sir? Hello?”
Kerry sensed a mole whacking in the process of occurring. Her hand twitched, as though reaching for a mallet. “Something wrong, Mr. Meyer?” She asked politely. “Would you like some water? You look a little funny.”
Meyer folded his phone up and stared at it, then he let it drop to his knee and looked over at them. “Well, Ms. Roberts.” He glanced at Kerry. “Ms. Stuart.” He added, after a pause. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Dar replied graciously.
“Your reputation is assuredly deserved. Since this challenge had ended up no win situation, the best you should have been able to come out with is a reasonable loss, and yet, you come out with a win.” Meyer was now looking at them with wry, bittersweet admiration. “How did you do that?”
And, Dar realized, he’d gotten his ending, despite her and everything else. Oh well. She was in no position to whine about it. “We’re the best.” She produced what she hoped was a sexy, confident smile. “What else do you need to know?”
Apparently it was, and apparently it was more than enough. “Cut.” Meyer lifted his hand, and let it drop. “Boy, that’s going to be an editing nightmare. “He said. “But you gave me what I wanted, Ms. Roberts.” He added. “Nice little bit of suspense at the end and everything, and a surprise. Studio’ll love it.”
Dar got up and brushed herself off. “Glad everyone walks away happy.” She muttered. “Ker?”
“Right behind you.” Kerry edged around the two men who had come forward to start taking away the set pieces. “Excuse us.”
They walked together to the door and went through it, closing it behind them before they stopped and looked at each other. “How did we do that?” Kerry uttered, under her breath, giving the rest of the group a little smile as they got up and headed over.
Dar blinked wide, blue eyes at her, then jerked a little as her PDA went off. She studied the message, then smiled, and tucked it back away. “Well, we are the best.” She told her partner. “And sometimes, we’re just the luckiest.” She put an arm around Kerry’s shoulders and relaxed. “It’s over, people.”
“How’d you do?” Michelle asked.
“Bout like you’d expect.” Kerry smiled charmingly at her. “Tell you what, let’s go to dinner. We’ll tell you all about it.”
“Why..” Michelle gave her a wary look. “Do I get the feeling you’re going to enjoy that a lot more than I am?”
“We’re buying.” Dar added. “C’mon.” They led the way towards the outer door, where a small group of people had just entered and were looking around. They all wore leather jackets and gloomy expressions except for the woman in the center, who was dressed like a native and who had apparently been there before. “Excuse us.”
“Sorry.” The woman drew her group aside. “We’re just doing a video here now.”
“Good luck.” Kerry smiled as she pushed the door open. “Make sure they give you chairs.”
“Um.. thanks. I will.” The woman gave them a very strange look, as the door closed and they were outside again in the warm humid air.
It was over. Dar felt about ten pounds lighter. It was over, and they’d won. Lucky or not, it didn’t matter.
Shari flailed her arms as she toppled out over the edge of the doorway, seeing a flash of white that abruptly turned into something big and hard and painful just before she should have felt the water’s icy sting instead. “Yahhh!” She yelped in disoriented pain. “Ah! Ah!”
Confused, she rolled over, finding herself lying on a rough, sandpaper feeling surface, hurting like hell. Standing over her was a small, blond woman she half recognized, who was snickering at her in a very unkind way. “Wh..” She struggled up onto one elbow and stared back at the ship, where the captain was in the opening waving at her. “What the f..”
“My American friends say to this.. “The captain yelled. “PSYCHE.” He ducked inside after one last wave and the door ground it’s way tiredly shut.
The blond woman snickered again. “He does have the damndest sense of humor.” She turned her head. “We out of here, sailor boy?”
Shari felt her throat go dry again, and she shaded her eyes as she looked up at the top level of the boat. A shadowy figure was up there, driving, and she knew suddenly who it was.
Oh shit. Now she wished she was back on the god damned cruise ship headed for Hell again. She was screwed. She was totally, completely screwed. “Fuck.”
“Occasionally.” The woman sat down in a deck chair and tucked one leg up under her. “You might want to give it a try sometime.”
Shari stared at her.
“Just think. It’s how Dar got here.” Ceci continued. “How bad could it be, really, hm?”
It was all just too much. Shari put her head back on the deck and just stared up at the clouds, not even caring where they were going or why.
The moon had come out from behind the summer clouds at last, here in the wee early hours of the morning. Kerry gazed up at it lovingly, letting it’s silver light soak into her eyes as the hot water of the Jacuzzi soaked into her bare body.
A soft clink nearby made her roll her head to one side, spotting Dar emerging from the condo carrying a champagne bottle and two glasses in one hand and a basket of strawberries in the other.
She was also naked, and as far as sensory pleasures went, Kerry figured she was pretty much on terminal overload at the moment. “Hey, sweetheart.” She greeted Dar warmly.
“Hm?” Dar stepped into the hot tub and settled next to her, putting her treats down on the verge. “What can I do for you, beautiful?” She inquired, facing Kerry and giving her a rakish grin. “Now that we’ve gotten to the end of the project from Hell?”
It was so nice to see Dar in a truly good mood. Kerry smiled back at her, lifting one hand from the water and laying it across her partner’s cheek without saying a word.
Dar seemed to understand. She reached back and picked up the glasses with one hand, pouring bubbly into them and then passing one to Kerry. They clinked their rims together and took mutual sips. “To winning.” She said, with a wry twinkle in her eyes. “Even when it surprises us.”
“To us.” Kerry answered. “Because winning is pointless and empty unless you have someone to share it with.”
“Mm.” Dar squirmed closer until they were pressed against each other. She tipped her head back against the padded bumper and gazed up at the stars. “What an end to this day.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry sipped slowly at her champagne, enjoying the tickle of the bubbles going down that matched the tickle of the bubbles from the waterjets around her. “I’m unbelievably glad it’s over with, but I have to be honest and tell you I never expected it to come together the way it did.”
Dar set her glass down and chuckled. “Anyone who could ever have expected this obviously spends a lot of time consuming illicit pharmecuticals.” She observed. “And since the most wild thing I’ve ever seen you swallow was orange flavored Children’s Tylenol, I’m not surprised you were surprised.”
Kerry’s face relaxed into a broad grin. “Aint’ that the truth.” She admitted. “As far as vices go, I’m pretty lightweight.”
Dar selected a powdered sugar dusted berry and offered it to her. “Do I count?”
“As a vice?” Kerry’s eyes twinkled as she chewed her berry. “Oooo.. yeah, I think you do.”
“Heh heh heh.” Dar tossed a berry into the air and caught it in her teeth. “Good.” She leaned over and waited for Kerry to bite the half sticking out of her mouth, then they both bit down at once and ended up pretty much in a lip lock.
Strawberry flavored, at that. “Mm.” Dar straightened up and waggled her eyebrows. “Much more fun than drugs.”
“Cheaper, too.” Kerry agreed.
“Hey.” Dar spread her arms out and indicated their surroundings. “This ain’t the YMCA, Yankee. You insinuating I’m cheap?”
“No.” Kerry placed a gentle kiss on her partner’s shoulder. “You’re priceless.” She gazed up at Dar with utter seriousness. “Not to mention definitely one of a kind.”
Dar blushed, and blinked a little, at the switch in attitude. “Um.”
“And you’re all mine.” Kerry whispered, giving the shoulder near her lips a small bite, just to break the mood again. “Love you.”
Wide, blue eyes gazed back at her.
Kerry winked, and smiled.
After a second, Dar grinned back and slid down a bit into the water, giving the impression of a tail wiggling puppy totally at odds with her stature. “You’re awesome.”
“Yeah. You really are.” Dar put her arm across Kerry’s shoulders, and hugged her. Then she picked up her glass and touched it against Kerry’s again.
“Mm. “ Kerry stretched her legs out into the flow and leaned her head against Dar’s shoulder. “You know, I thought those guys were going to be more pissed off than they were.” She said. “Even Michelle was just sort of resigned about it.”
Dar took a swallow of her champagne and licked her lips thoughtfully. “Want to offer her a job?”
“Gurk.” Kerry almost ended up snorting her bubbly.
“Hey, they were trying to offer us jobs the last month.” Dar said, reasonably. “She’s not bad, and I’d rather have her on our team than heading up another attempt at screwing us over.”
“That was Shari.”
“The brains behind that was Michelle, and she’s in a place where she wants to win for a change.” Dar disagreed.
Kerry considered that while she drained her glass. She gently rolled the edge of the flute against her lower lip for a moment, and then shrugged. “Okay.” She said. “At least then, if you and I decide to take off and go our own way, there’ll be someone there who can make me feel like I’m not leaving the company totally tanked with. “
Dar regarded her in some surprise. “Wasn’t thinking of that really… but you have a point.”
Kerry nodded, holding her glass out. “Fill her up, Dixie. I’m in the mood to get a little silly tonight.”
Dar obliged. “Feels good not to have to worry about this damn project, doesn’t it?’
“You bet.” Kerry leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “Feels very, very good.” She murmured. “Very, very nice not to feel stressed to the point my guts ache.”
Dar gazed off at the horizon, sipping the rest of her champagne as she watched the stars twinkle overhead. “It’s going to be nice working from the cabin next week” She commented casually.
“Maybe I can figure out a way to make that a more frequent arrangement.”
Kerry opened her eyes and lifted her glass, taking a sip from it. “Maybe you can.” She agreed quietly. “You hear from the folks yet?”
Dar nodded. “They’re due into South Pointe in about an hour.”
Kerry waited, but nothing more seemed to be forthcoming. “And?”
“Said they’d talk to me about it after they got back.”
“Ah.” Kerry drained her glass again and set it down. “Hope your mother kicked her ass to kingdom come.”
“Huh?” Dar’s cell phone rang, and she lifted it off the verge and opened it. “Ah.” She held it to her ear. “Morning, Hans.”
“Are you not sleeping?” Hans answered. “I will call later, if that is not the case.”
Dar chuckled. “Kerry and I are in the hot tub. Don’t bother calling later. What’s up?”
“Ahem.” The German cleared his throat. “You will need to come here so that this wonderful deal of ours can be signed. Perhaps after next week.”
“Sure.” Dar agreed. “Thanks for telling me you were part of the family over there, by the way.”
Hans chuckled now. “We do not show all our cards, even to our friends.” He said. “We were very fortunate that I moved when I did, you must realize. He was committed to say yes to whatever persons figured out the deal and asked him first.”
“Really?” Dar glanced at Kerry, who had squirmed up to listen. “Risky, especially since he doesn’t like Americans that much.” She considered switching to English, then figured she’d just fill the blond woman afterward.
“He is not a stupid man. He knows who put the machines inside those ships. I have to say, however, that he was not so disappointed to find who my partner in this was.”
“He seems to think that I have stepped up in the world, in fact.”
Dar laughed. “Well, he hasn’t met me yet.” She remarked. “But I’m glad it worked out. Remind me to tell you what I went through tonight over this when we get together to sign it.”
“I will do so. But before that can occur, there must be something straightened between us.” Hans’ voice became more serious. “There is something that before I did not tell you.”
Dar’s eyebrow quirked. “Yeah?”
“It is a matter of a piece of technology.” Hans said. “A piece of cellular technology that you perhaps found inside of your office, at one time.”
It was easily the last thing she expected to hear. “He’s asking me about the gadget Mark found in the conference room.” She murmured to Kerry. “I think he knows something about it.”
“Really?” Kerry inched closer. “How?”
“What about it?” Dar responded in German. “How did you hear about that?”
Hans cleared his throat. “I caused it to be put there.”
Dar’s jaw dropped. “You did?” She managed to get out in something other than a squeak.
“What?” Kerry nearly crawled up Dar’s body.
“I did.” Hans confirmed. “It was not simple, you understand, to acquire the thing, and I am saying it was brilliant even for myself to arrange to be put there.”
Several things jumped to Dar’s lips, and she stifled them. “Why?” She kept her voice even.
“Ah heh.” Hans seemed a little embarrassed. “To satisfy the little kicking that you gave to me, yes?” He admitted. “I could not let that go unanswered.”
Dar put her glass down and raised her hand to cover her eyes instead. “Son of a bitch.”
“What???” Kerry hissed. “What in the heck’s going ofuf…mmph.” She got the message, and subsided, her lips tingling from the kiss. Dar’s free hand dropped under the water and she felt the pressure of it against her hip, her body responding to the touch immediately.
“It was clever, yes?” Hans said. “An intriguing machine, to be sure.”
“Except I found it.” Dar gathered her wits. “Before it could do anything, so your little trick didn’t quite work.” Absently, she traced a line up Kerry’s side and across her ribs.
“And the guys who own the thing are signing a development deal with us.”
“Is that not always the case with you?” Hans sounded wryly humorous. “I am convinced if you fell into a puddle of mud you would get some free facials from it.” He said. “But at any difference, if it does matter to you I am sorry if that caused you any difficulties.”
Dar exhaled. “Hans, trust me when I tell you of all the crap I’ve had to deal with in the last month, that was the least of it. Glad you told me.”
“I feel much better now. I will go have a beer.” Hans replied.
“It is better for you than is coffee. I will be in touch in some days to make plans. Good night.”
Dar closed the phone and set it down. She looked at Kerry, who was crouched over her, chin resting on Dar’s breastbone. “One more mystery solved.” She informed her. “Seems like..”
Kerry’s hands slid down Dar’s body. “Know what?” She lifted her head up a little and kissed her partner. “I’ve got another mystery I’d rather talk about right now.”
“Oh. Don’t you want to hear..mph.” Dar felt the bubbling water between them disappear, replaced by Kerry’s body pressing against hers. “Guess not.” Kerry’s thigh slipped between hers and she felt the blond woman’s arm circle around her, pulling her even closer.
“No.” Kerry kissed her again. “Tomorrow.” She felt Dar’s arms close around her. The pressure made her hiccup a little, and she accepted a touch of dizziness as the champagne worked into her bloodstream. “Or maybe Monday.” She added, hearing Dar’s soft chuckle in her ear. “What I want right now is you.”
“Got me.” Dar whispered. “C’mere.”
Oh yeah. Kerry went willingly, losing all sense of her surroundings as Dar’s touch became intimate, and the pressure of the water jets blasted against her suddenly very sensitive skin. Lovely way to end the day.
The lights of the city came into view on the horizon, twinkling gently and throwing a soft glow onto the overhead clouds. Ceci lifted her wine glass and sipped from it, enjoying the breeze the boat’s speed was affording her at the moment.
It would slack down soon, when Andy entered the shipping channel but the up side to that was that they’d pull into their home marina soon after and rid themselves of their unwelcome guest. They’d hardly spoken a word to each other since leaving the cruise ship behind, and Ceci had refused to offer her even so much as a glass of water on top of it.
Dar had asked them to retrieve the wench, she hadn’t said they needed to offer her hospitality, and Ceci was damned if she was going to attempt to be nice after all the crap the woman had pulled on her daughters.
Who-a. Ceci’s eyeballs widened, and she hastily took a gulp of wine. Let’s not take this whole maternal thing too far, hm?
“How much longer do we have to go?” Shari asked, in a subdubded voice.
Ceci craned her neck and viewed the horizon. “About an hour.” She decided. “Depends on whether or not my husband is in the mood for playing chicken with those freighters over there.”
Shari looked up at the flying bridge, then returned her attention to the water. “Why did you bother doing that?” She asked suddenly. “Going all the way out there?’
“Dar asked us to.” Ceci replied simply.
“Why?”The younger woman asked. “What the hell was she after this time?”
Ceci had pondered that very question herself, but didn’t see any need to expose that fact. “You’ll have to ask her that.” She replied. “Of course, there’s always the possibility she just did it because it was a decent thing for her to do.”
“In which case, you’ve got her father to thank for that trait, cause it certainly didn’t come from me.” Ceci smiled humorlessly. “I’d have let you go right to the bottom, which I think was a hundred fathoms there.”
Shari looked at her in surprise.
“I am not idiot tolerant.” Ceci explained. “And someone who keeps banging their heads against a concrete sidewalk is a total idiot in my book.”
Shari looked away. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
Ceci laughed. “See? You are an idiot.” She said. “I raised her.” She added, in a amused tone. “Of course I understand. You’re the one who doesn’t.”
Shari looked towards the shore, as though wishing it would come closer faster.
“Listen.” Ceci leaned on one chair arm. “I’ll give you some free advice, and maybe it’ll be worth the time it’ll take for me to say it. You can’t win.”
Shari looked sharply at her. “Bull.”
Ceci shook her head seriously. “You can’t, because the harder you push, the harder she pushes back, and if you keep pushing, trust me kid, you’re the one who is going to end up being knocked over.” She held up a finger as Shari started to speak. “She gets that from him.” A thumb pointed up towards the bridge. “There just is no losing in either of them.”
Shari looked off into the distance and didn’t answer.
Ah well. Ceci got up and stretched, setting down her cup and going over to the ladder to climb up it. She joined Andrew at the helm and sat down next to him, leaving the sulky obnoxi-tude down below. “Almost there? I want to jet clean the back deck.”
“Heh.” Andrew chuckled softly. “Ah do not get why Dar done that.”
Ceci shrugged lightly. “Just wanted to do the right thing, maybe? She does that sometimes, you know.”
Her husband looked at her, his pale blue eyes glinting softly in the reflection from the instruments. “Ain’t that the truth.” He said. “Howsomever, I could throw this here boat into a 360 and I figure we’d lose that trash off the back deck right quick.”
Ceci put her arm around him. “No twirling, sailor boy. Just put this thing in the garage. It’s getting late.” She said. “Let’s discharge our cargo and see if any of the neighbors are up for a nightcap.”
“Sounds all right t’me.” Andrew agreed. “Sooner’s better, though.” He grinned a little, and gunned the big engines. “I don’t’ figure to wait for them slow boats.”
“Uh oh.” Ceci took a firmer hold. “Glad I battened down the hatches inside.”
“You want to give a warn to that there woman?” Andy asked.
Kerry pushed lazily against the post the hammock was anchored to, her eyes closed as she listened to the conference call going on in her ear bud. It was the weekly general administration meeting, which she usually chaired since operations tended to be in the center of whatever was going on.
Today though, she was merely listening as Jose rambled on about sales projections and Eleanor kept throwing in her two cents worth.
“Hey, Kerry?” Duks broke into the buzz. “Are you still there?”
“I’m here.” Kerry replied, rocking herself in a gentle rhythm.
“Your entire department is empty, you do know that right?” Jose said. “If something stops working I don’t know what in the hell we’re going to do.”
“I know.” Kerry said. “We gave everyone the week off who worked the project.”
“Including yourselves.” Eleanor sniped mildly.
“I have heard through the grapevine.” Duks regained the conversational ball. “That there is a large contract to come out of that calamity.”
Silence. Kerry smiled into the warm salt air. “Of course.” She said. “What’d you think Dar was doing it for, exercise?”
Everyone chuckled, after a moment’s awkward silence. “So we got one over on Telegenics, huh?” Jose said. “That is a pleasant change.”
“Oh, I think Dar locked that one up for you too.” Kerry reached over and retrieved her mug, sucking a mouthful of fragrant iced tea from it through a straw. “I don’t’ think they’ll be bothering us much anymore.”
Silence again. “Did you guys go amok with a gattling gun or something?” Eleanor asked.
“Long story.” Kerry replied. “But you might want to prepare your people out there, Jose. Dar’s going to move back into new business acquisitions.”
Kerry could well imagine the looks of consternation going around the table. She sucked another mouthful of tea contentedly, and was glad she wasn’t there. “I’m going to be working on restructuring the back end of things. We need some changes.”
The porch floorboards creaked, and Kerry felt warm fingers take hold of her bare toes, tweaking them.
“All right… ah, that’s a little sudden, isn’t it?” Eleanor hazarded. “But, then again, it’s your department.”
“Yup.” Kerry agreed. “It is. Anything else, guys? I have another meeting to go to.” She opened one eye and studied the mischeivious expression on Dar’s face. “And I think I’m late for it.”
The sound of shifting furniture came through the line. “No, I think that’s it.” Jose said. “So, you are really going to just call in for this whole week? Must be very nice.”
Kerry reached out and hooked a finger into the ragged pocket on Dar’s shorts. “Don’t like it? Find another set of ops management.” She told Jose bluntly.
Dar leaned over and pressed her head against Kerry’s so she could hear the bud also.
“Hey! I wasn’t saying anything!” Jose protested. “Take it easy already. Jesu.”
“I’m sure we’ll adjust.” Mariana broke in. “After all, we do all of our international calls remotely. This isn’t anything different.”
Kerry tweaked Dar’s earlobe. “Exactly.” She said. “You’ll just have to cope with it because we have a life to live and that’s just how it’s going to be.” She pressed her hand against Dar’s stomach, suspended over her when she thought she heard purring and felt the vibration that confirmed it.
“Um.. okay.” Eleanor said. “More info than we needed, but whatever floats your boat, mmhm? Long as you keep producing, that is.” She added. “But that’s the same rule for all of us, isn’t it?”
“Eh.” Jose grunted. “C’mon, let’s go do lunch.” He said. “We’re done here.”
“Bye, Kerry.” Eleanor added. “Thanks for the good news about the project.”
“Bye.” Kerry clicked the phone off and turned her attention fully to her partner. “Hi.”
“They sound miffed.” Dar carefully tumbled her way into the double size hammock, ending up next to Kerry. “Were they?”’
“I don’t care.” Kerry exhaled. “I think I realized something, Dar, over the past few weeks.” She said. “Remember the argument we had at Disney?”
“We had an argument?”
“In the bus.”
Dar went over her memories of the recent past. “That wasn’t’ an argument.”
Kerry offered her a sip of ice tea. “It was, because I was putting work ahead of us, and you damn well should have called me on it.”
“We’ve only got one life.” Kerry turned her head and regarded her partner. “We have to live every minute of it.”
“Ah.” Dar curled her fingers around Kerry’s and squeezed them. “Might not be the best thing for our careers.”
“Don’t give a damn.”
Dar leaned over and kissed her. “Then it probably won’t matter.” She answered. “But I don’t care if it does either because I’ve learned something over the past few weeks too.”
“Have you?” Kerry murmured.
“Yes.” Dar touched her nose to Kerry’s. “There is no other shoe.” She tilted her head and kissed Kerry again. “And I want to live every second of this life all the way with you.”
It was a truly sweet moment for both of them, and they paused to enjoy it, indulging in a long kiss as the tide rolled in against the rocks and sand nearby.
In the distance, a ship’s bell rang.
“Ah, sounds like the fish boat’s in.” Kerry smiled and held up her cell phone, offering Dar an ear bud. “Want to sit in on my projections meeting?”
“Sure.” Dar snuggled closer, fitting the bud into place. “Come with me to England next week?”
“Oh, you bet your buns I will.” Kerry chuckled, as she dialed the phone.
“Sounds like we’ve got a plan”
“Sounds like we do.”
A crab raced past, waving it’s arms with Chino in hot pursuit, wishing it had gotten the email about the plan, and hoping like hell it didn’t involve any puppies.