Kerry leaned on the kitchen counter, watching the palm tree fronds outside wilt in the stifling heat as she waited for the water in a nearby pot to boil. The air conditioning puffed gently against her still slightly sore shoulder blades through a layer of soft cotton, and she moved a little to one side to avoid the pressure, but had little ambition otherwise to do much else.
It was nearly noon. They’d just woken up a half hour earlier, and having gotten through coffee and a handful of Advil for Dar’s obligingly timely cramps they had settled in to enjoy a peaceful, lazy Saturday. It felt good to just be hanging out, here in their own space, without work or trade shows to intrude on it.
Kerry turned and surveyed the kitchen, taking in the touches she’d added over time to soften it’s Spartan functionality. A set of imported cooking pots hanging over the stove here, a well oiled, interlaced wood chopping block there… she took pride in her ability to produce edible meals for them, and enjoyed having plenty of tools to do it with.
Also, the stainless steel refrigerator doors were now dotted with colorful magnets, brought back by both of them from various airports they’d either passed through or been stuck in, and the tiled backsplash displayed plates likewise acquired from all over. Kerry especially liked the one nearest the stove, a tacky hunting scene that featured a near perfect replica of their often naughty but much beloved pet, Chino. She ran a finger over it with a smile, then turned to dump a package of pasta into the now boiling water.
“Hey, Ker?” Dar’s voice drifted in from the living room.
“In the kitchen.” Kerry responded.
“Did I leave that damn folder in there?”
Kerry pushed away from the counter and turned in a circle, studying the available surfaces. “No.” She called back. “Thought you stuck it in your briefcase.” She wandered out of the kitchen and headed for the corner where they’d both thrown their laptop cases the previous night. “I’ll get it.”
Caught in the act of getting up from the couch, Dar collapsed back into it and curled up again. “Thanks.”
With a tug, Kerry retrieved the somewhat battered folder and crossed the living room, setting it down on the coffee table. She took a seat next to her partner’s feet, reaching over to tweak a toe under it’s pristine white cotton sock covering. “How’s the belly?”
Dar narrowed her eyes and growled.
“Hmm.. well, if it’s any consolation to you, I’m getting that kinda achy feeling myself.” Kerry admitted. “Which doesn’t really surprise me, because we’re usually right on time together.”
Dar growled again, but flexed her toes against Kerry’s thigh. “Least we’re both miserable at once.” She conceded. “You think that’s what made the past few days even more stressful than they were anyway?”
Hm. Kerry considered the question. She wasn’t often bothered by PMS either, though she did have a tendency to be just a bit more emotional a few days before. Add that to the stress of dealing with Dar’s first girlfriend and Michelle Graver, challenging them at every step? “Yeeeah, maybe.”
The socked feet flexed against her thigh again, and Kerry gave them a pat before she leaned forward and got to her feet. “Let me go get our lunch.”
Dar poked her with a toe as she eased past, and smiled at the pink tongue stuck out in her direction. Then she returned her attention to Quest’s requirements, wincing slightly as a cramp twisted her guts. With a soft grunt, she tossed aside the initial document which she’d already gone over, and drew out the set of technical specifications, easing down to put her head on the couch arm as she started to leaf through the pages.
She spotted several big problems straight off. The hulks Quest had gotten his hands on were old as the hills – two of them were steamships, for god’s sake, and the rest were retired passenger liners he’d dug out of mothballs somewhere.
That meant, she realized, they had zero infrastructure. Most had been built before computers, and the idiot was wanting to outfit them with the latest available technology. “Jesus.” Dar clucked under her breath and shook her head. “Jackass wants to put laser video in the Merrimac.”
“Did you say something, sweetie?” Kerry called from the kitchen.
“Nah.” Dar replied, lifting her head a little as she sniffed spicy pasta sauce in the air. “Just going over this stuff.” She went back to reading. Quest wanted a computerized hotel system, a point of sale, connection to the damn Internet, and – Dar had to look twice. Voice over IP telephony. “Jesus.” She repeated.
“No, just me and some noodles.” Kerry appeared at her side, bearing two steaming bowls. She set them down on the coffee table and resumed her perch at Dar’s feet. “Parmesan?’
“Uh huh.” Dar watched as a small snowstorm of freshly ground cheese settled on the surface of her pasta. “Are those little meatballs in there?”
“Yup.” Kerry dusted her own bowl with the cheese. “Last time I made sauce, I froze some.” She set the grater down and handed Dar a fork. “So what are you cussing about this time?”
Dar stabbed herself a forkful of pasta and lifted it towards her mouth, pausing as the utensil came into her close line of focus. She pulled it back a little and peered at the sauce covered bits, then she selected the last one on the fork’s tines and pulled it off, holding it up to examine it. “Kerrison?”
“Mm?” Kerry grunted around a mouthful.
“Why am I eating a disk drive?”
Kerry swallowed and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Ah.” She reached over and pushed the bit of pasta towards Dar’s mouth. “My guys gave me a thank you basket for helping out at the con. It was full of nerd things, including a bag of nerd pasta shapes. I figured you were the perfect person to share it with.”
“Ah.” Dar ate the disk drive, and studied the forkful of pc’s left to consume. “Feels sorta cannibalistic, but all right.” She chewed the mouthful and went back to the report. One finger pointed at a paragraph, and she pushed it toward Kerry as she swallowed.
Kerry edged over on the couch and started reading. Her brow creased. “Dar, am I reading right – he only wants one set of cables run?”
“Does he realize what that’s going to cost in equipment?”
“He wants it on a shoestring.”
Kerry slowly ate a mouthful of her lunch. She swallowed before she answered. “Dar, you couldn’t do that on Paul Bunyan’s shoestring.”
“Telegenics says they can.” Dar replied. “They told Quest fitting it into his budget was a no brainer.”
A snort answered the statement. “Obviously whoever told him that didn’t bother to use a brain then. Dar, you know damn well doing this right’s going to cost.”
Yes, she knew that. Dar worked her way through her lunch bowl, eying the familiar shapes all the while. “Well, let’s wait till we see the real deal.” She said. “Maybe it’s not as bad as the description seems to show.”
Kerry tapped the edge of her fork against her lip. “All right. Sounds like it’s all we can do.” She conceded. “Maybe when we lay the plans out, he’ll realize what it is he’s asking for, after all, it’s his job to try and get everything he can for as little as possible.”
“Eh.” Dar flipped to the next page. “His timeline’s impossible, too.” She frowned. “How long did he say it would take those ships to be hauled here?”
“Two weeks?” Kerry recalled. “Can they do it by then? Wonder why he had to pull out of New Zealand.. damn, I was looking forward to going there.”
Dar set her bowl down. “You know, that’s a damn good question.” She pulled her laptop over and rolled onto her back, putting the machine down on her stomach and typing on the keyboard. “Did he mention where in New Zealand the ships were at?”
“Auckland.” Kerry leaned over and watched the screen with interest. “You think he was lying?”
Dar keyed in a request, and waited, scanning the responses as they flicked across the monitor. “I think outfitting six ships means big bucks for somebody. Now why…” She drummed her fingers on the keys. “Why would ‘somebody’ throw away those kind of big bucks?”
Kerry rested her elbow on Dar’s knee and looked at the list of shipyards now displayed. There were only six, but though she racked her memory, she couldn’t recall Quest mentioning any of the names. What had he said? Just that the ships were somewhere in Auckland, being worked on.
Dar called up one of their info parsing agents and typed the names of the companies into them. “Now.” She paused as she got to the intelligent language question field. “How would you tell if a shipyard suddenly lost business?”
“Not stock.” Kerry mused, as Dar shook her head. “Layoffs?”
Dar nodded. “Let’s see what that gets us.” She typed into the field. “Contract+/= canceled+/=loss+/=business (includes) shipping.” Then she hit enter, and watched the small running dog in the corner dash merrily away. “Okay. “ She half turned and set the laptop back down on the table. “So maybe that’ll answer your question from last night.” She put her head back down on the couch arm and picked up the report again.
Kerry extended a fork full of pasta towards her partner. “Maybe.” She agreed, smiling as Dar closed her teeth over the offering and removed it. “I’m going to throw the stuff in our overnight bags into the washing machine. Got anything else you need to go in?”
“Thought it was my turn to do that this week.” Dar gazed at her. “You did it last week.”
“Mm.. yes, it was your turn.” Kerry put a fingertip on her partner’s chin and lifted it slightly. “But it seems some little nerdy gremlin got all my office clothes dry cleaned for me when I wasn’t looking. I don’t suppose you have any idea how that happened, huh?”
Dar smiled charmingly at her.
“And somehow my car got mysteriously washed and waxed while we were gone. Any ideas?”
The charming smile grew wider.
“Uh huh. I thought so.” Kerry leaned over and gave her a kiss. “So I’m going to go grab your dirty clothes from the closet and get those suds going.” She pushed off Dar’s hip and stood, collecting the dishes from the table before she sauntered off towards the kitchen.
Dar let her hand fall on the forgotten papers, taking a moment to enjoy the simple feeling of warmth inside her left by the look of indulgent affection in Kerry’s eyes. It even eased the cramps some, or at least she convinced herself it did as she stretched out, then curled her body up again into the dark leather.
She took a moment to look around the living room, which for so long had just been ‘the condo’ to her. Plain white walls, and mostly monochromatic furniture had graced it since she’d moved in, providing her with a pleasant, if unremarkable place to throw her car keys at the days’ end, and lay her head down for those long tropical nights.
It had never been her home. But now it was their home, and from the colorful Mexican throw rug over the love seat to the framed photograph of them both on entertainment center it had become a part of her in a way she’d never thought it would.
That was why, she acknowledged in silence, she’d gotten so wired being around Shari. It had brought back to her memories of what her life had been like for so long, and had provided a reminder of just what she had to be thankful for now.
She never wanted to take that for granted. She never wanted Kerry to take it for granted either, though she’d never gotten the feeling that her partner felt that way. It was more an impression she got that Kerry considered their relationship a natural part of her life that she expected to remain that way forever.
Kerry had no doubts. Dar didn’t have any doubts about Kerry, but the last week had made her wonder if she didn’t still have some doubts about herself.
Which, frankly, sucked. She’d thought she’d gotten past that. It was aggravating to say the least feeling again those tiny darts of insecurity pricking at her.
Dar sighed. Maybe it had been PMS. Certainly today, now that she’d started, the doubts seemed to have vanished completely, replaced by a feeling of rock solid stability she’d become used to over the last year and more.
Kerry strolled across the tile in front of her, heading for the bedroom. “Crocodile Hunter marathon this afternoon.. you up for it?”
Dar grinned, releasing a happier sigh. “Sure.” She hesitated. “Hey, Ker?”
“Yeeesss?” Kerry paused in the doorway, leaning back into the room.
“For the laundry?” Kerry laughed. “You forgot the last time I did it I washed your whites with my burgundy sweatshirt and we both ended up pink in inappropriate places.”
“I like my pink bra.” Dar remarked mildly. “But thanks anyway. I don’t’ really feel like standing over the machine today.”
Kerry winked. “I figured. No problem.” She disappeared into the bedroom. “It’ll be my turn soon enough. You can get me hot chocolate.”
Chino wandered over and climbed up onto the couch, circling twice before she settled down at Dar’s feet, resting her muzzle on Dar’s ankle.
“It’s a deal.” Dar murmured. “Best deal going, matter of fact, right Chino?”
Kerry heard the soft ding of mail arriving into her inbox. She swiveled around in her chair and rolled her trackball, glancing at the sender and the subject and stifling a curse. “Oh, pooters.” She clicked on it anyway and read the text. “Crap, crap, crap.”
Finishing, she sat back in her leather chair and frowned at the pc, sitting inoffensively on the center of her office desk. “I can’t believe I forgot about the damn party tomorrow night.” With a sigh, she hit the intercom button on the phone. “Dar?”
She released the button and waited, but after a minute there was no answer. She pressed the button again. “Dar?”
Still no answer. Kerry got up and circled her desk, emerging from her office on the second floor of the condo and starting down the staircase. She peeked over, but the living room was empty, Dar’s laptop sitting mutely on the coffee table spinning its screen saver in lonely silence. “Hm.”
She continued down the steps to the lower level, poking her head into Dar’s office and finding an equally empty space. “Where are you, hmm?” She turned and realized Chino wasn’t around either. “Ah.” She headed for the patio, spotting a blond Labrador tail near the two person swing they’d hung out there.
“Hey.” Kerry slid the door open and stepped out, grimacing slightly at the contrast between the cool dry air inside and the warm, languid sea breeze outside. “Listen, I fubar’d.”
Dar looked up in surprise from the book she’d been reading. “You?”
“Me.” Kerry walked over and joined her on the swing. “I.. um… committed us to a party tomorrow night that I completely forgot to tell you about.” She studied her bare feet for a moment, before she glanced sideways at her partner. “Fubar.”
Dar let the book close over her hand and studied her penitent appearing swingmate. “Hmmm… what kind of party? Don’t tell me it’s the condo association again.”
“Goood.. I’d have to whip you with soggy Ramen noodles.” The blue eyes twinkled gently. “Let me guess.. the church?”
Kerry nodded, watching the expression on Dar’s face carefully. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Nah.” Dar displayed her book cover. “Conversation there’s gotta beat this. I’ve seen drier material about heuristic switching but not by much.”
Relieved, Kerry rested her head against Dar’s shoulder. “Remind me to get you some nice, trashy bodice rippers for your afternoon time outs, honey. You’ll go blind reading this stuff.” She tapped the book. “But I really am sorry it slipped my mind. I said yes right before we started talking about leaving early for the trade show and.. well…”
Dar put her arm around Kerry and pushed against the railing, rocking them both gently in the light breeze. She wasn’t that fond of parties, but the church ones were pretty harmless, and she’d taken a liking to a few of the more regular members. “Maybe I’ll even stop having cramps by then. Son of a bitch, I got it bad this month.”
“Want to go for a walk? Maybe it’ll help.”
Dar tossed her book down and stood up, taking Kerry’s hand as they opened the gate and walked down the steps into the small patio garden with Chino frisking happily at their heels. It was late afternoon, and the breeze from the sea had started to cool off the air a little, bringing the scent of the salt water with it.
They made their way down to the beach and turned to walk along it as the incoming tide chased their steps. Chino found a piece of driftwood and pounced on it, lifting it and returning to her owners with an air of excited triumph.
“Whatcha got?” Dar reached out and took the stick, examining it before she tossed it ahead of them. “Good girl!”
Chino raced after it, living up to her breed as she retrieved the stick and plowed back towards them.
Kerry was content to watch, her hand still tucked into Dar’s as they walked along the mostly deserted beachfront. They got a glance or two, but most of the residents knew them and she returned the smiles and half waves of the few still laying on neatly toweled chaise lounges, soaking up the sun.
Dar swerved a little, taking them into the surf up to their calves. Chino bolted into the water, barking at it as the surf surged back at her.
“Chino, you silly dog.” Kerry scolded their pet.
The Labrador bounded over to her and shook herself vigorously, showering both of them with cool sea water. “Gruff!”
“Bah.” Dar shielded her face with her free hand. “Chino, you little…”
“Bitch?” Kerry supplied, with a chuckle. “Yes, she is, isn’t she? G’wan, Chi.. get the stick!” She pointed to the shore. “Get it!”
Chino bounded away to retrieve her prize, leaving her owners to walk out of the surf in peace.
“She’s so cute.” Kerry sighed. “She gets away with everything, and she knows it.” She added. “She has us wrapped right around her little paw.”
Dar chuckled softly.
“Walking helping any?”
“No.” Dar managed a wry grin. “But the two of you are keeping my mind otherwise occupied, so the end result is all right.” She told her partner. “I feel better.”
“Mm.. well, that’s what your family’s for. To make you feel better when you feel crummy.” Kerry squeezed her hand around Dar’s lightly. “So I’m glad we’re doing our job.”
Dar didn’t answer, but her face lit up visibly at the words, and her step took on an extra swagger as they enjoyed the late afternoon sun. They passed the beach club, exchanging lazy waves with a few people seated outside and continued on along the south side of the island.
It was quieter on this end. They faced the terminal island where the cargo ships loaded up with containers, bound for South America and beyond. Dar shaded her eyes and then pointed to one side of the cargo area, a large, open space with several cranes standing slack and waiting for work. “Think that’s where he’s talking about.”
Kerry reviewed the spot. “Dar, it’s really twisted that these damn things are going to be almost in view of our bedroom.”
Her partner chuckled softly. “Remind me to point that out in a loud voice if we bump into our friends during the process.”
They watched a cargo cruiser move stiffly away from the dock, chugging out down the channel towards the cut, shepherded by two hard working tugs.
“I think…” Kerry mused, as they continued their walk, heading around the back side of the island. “I think we should throw a big party. Invite all our competitors over to break the ice, kinda, since we are the.. um.. hosts.. so to speak.”
Dar eyed her. “Invite them all to our condo?”
“You really mean, invite Shari and Michelle to our condo so they can drool all over it and be jealous of our home life and good taste?”
Dar ruffled Kerry’s hair with her free hand, feeling around on the crown of her head. “Careful, Yankee.. your horns are showing.” She teased. “Michelle’s got some class. I’m sure they live in a nice place.”
Kerry solemnly stuck her tongue out. “Not as nice as ours.” She said. “I looked up the address just to prove out my excruciatingly thorough WASP upbringing.” Her green eyes glinted slightly. “But I was serious, Dar. If we’re going to do this, I don’t want to spend two weeks being miserable like we were in Orlando. Let’s take the high road, and let them be jerks if they want to be.”
Dar pondered in silence as they rounded the curve and started up the northern edge of the island, which bordered the cut. Watercraft were moving through the channel, even including two daredevil jet ski riders courting disaster as they wove through a stately parade of sailboats. Chino trotted along behind them, and now that the sun was starting a serious tilt towards the horizon a cooling breeze sprang up and made the walk far more pleasant.
“Well, let’s see what happens.” Dar finally concluded. “After all, they might not come down here. I’m gonna guess most of the bidders will send an engineering team, not executives in silk and pumps.”
Kerry accepted the tacit victory with a gentle smile. “Bet you ten bucks they’ll be here.” She countered. “Because they know you will.”
“We will.” Dar corrected her. “I think Michelle respects you.”
Kerry’s face wrinkled up into an expression of distaste. “You know something, I sort of liked her, way back when. I thought she was pretty cool, the way she made that pick the first time, and even after she messed around with those snapshots and came to the office, she seemed pretty straightforward.”
“Mm.” Dar stepped over a piece of driftwood. Her cramps seemed to be easing after all, and she was finding the walk increasingly enjoyable. “Yeah, I didn’t have a problem with her that first time. I wasn’t crazy about her sending those photos to Alastair, but I figured she probably was pretty stung when I blew her off that night at her hotel.”
A smile played around Kerry’s lips. “The night you came over to my apartment.” She murmured. “Ah, yes. I remember that night. I’m surprised I didn’t stain that beige carpet green I was so freaking jealous.”
Dar looked at her, caught in the middle of continuing her original thought. “You were?”
“Dar.” Kerry laughed, rolling her eyes. “Oh, Jesus, please. Tell me you didn’t see it written right over my face.”
“Um.” Her partner cleared her throat gently. “Actually, no.. I was too busy staring lustfully at the half naked, sweat covered woman on the carpet to notice what color she was.”
Kerry looked at her, both eyebrows hiking up. Dar responded with a sexy grin, triggering a now far more rare heated blush that rapidly colored the blond woman’s face. “Euhr… you do say the nicest things sometimes, honey.” Kerry rubbed her cheek with one hand, and then she glanced up. “Really?”
“Really.” Dar replied. “It was quite a feeling – after being hit on all night by someone I wasn’t attracted to.” She tucked Kerry’s hand into the crook of her elbow. “Funny how I used to like playing that game. I was in a meeting the other month with a half dozen new reps from that consulting company we integrated .. didn’t know me, didn’t know about us.. they started that sniffing around crap and I called a break and went out and put this on.” She raised her right hand, displaying her ring. “End of that problem.”
Startled to have her unasked question answered in such an unexpected way, Kerry merely stayed silent for a few steps. Then she released a small puff of air, almost a laugh. “So that’s why.” She mused. “I remember you telling me once how you felt that people formed certain ideas about other people based on whether they had a ring on or not.”
Dar nodded. “Yeah.” She agreed. “I damn well wanted them to think that about me.” She glanced at Kerry’s hand tucked in hers, it’s ring glinting softly in the sunlight, then she met Kerry’s eyes. “Yeah.”
“Me, too.” The smile on Kerry’s face left no doubt her feelings. “You know, Dar, we should do these little walk and talks more often.”
A wry chuckle spilled from Dar’s lips. “Sure beats cramps.” She looked up. “Hey.. hey… Chino!!!”
“Oh no.” Kerry’s eyes widened. “No! C’mere, girl..”
Chino spotted a duck and bolted after it, spurring her owners into a mad dash after her, leaving laughter in the air behind them.
“Here you go.” The short, curly haired man behind the makeshift bar handed Kerry a beer. “Careful, it’s a little foamy.”
“Thanks.” Kerry inhaled some of the sharp tasting fizz before it poured over her hand and moved to one side out of the way of the crowd.
The church was mostly full, it’s homey interior buzzing with low conversation and the occasional spurt of laughter. Kerry dodged around a few chatting groups and headed for the low couches near the back wall where Dar was lounging inside a circle of people they were more familiar with.
At least the party was casual. Kerry eased past a man in shorts so short she wondered why he really bothered and took the cushion next to her partner on the couch. “What’d I miss?”
“Oh, Lori and I were just filling Dar in on the latest church news, you know.” A tall redhead told her. “This and that.. we keep trying to lure her in the choir.”
Kerry settled against Dar’s warm body. “She’d be good at it.” She agreed, ignoring the mock glower from a pair of nearby baby blues. “You should see her singing in the shower. It’s amazing.”
“I’m sure we’d love to. Invite us over.” Lori shot back, with a mischievous grin. “Right, Rachel?”
“Absolutely! Kerry, you little charmer! What a sweetie you are!” Her partner chortled. “When’s the viewing?”
Kerry felt Dar start to snicker. “Well, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?” She admitted, toasting them all with her beer. “Sorry ladies, I don’t share.” A reluctant grin appeared. “The view, or anything else.” She bumped Dar with her elbow. “And you stop laughing!”
“Ahem.” Dar cleared her throat. “Honestly, my work schedule just won’t permit me getting involved in anything that regular.” She told Rachel, the redhead who was also one of the principals in the choir. “And I don’t commit to things I can’t guarantee I’ll do.”
Rachel slouched in the easy chair across from them, swinging one denim covered leg over the arm of it. “Yeah, yeah. But all work no play…” She let the words trail off suggestively. “Workaholics are so uncool these days.” She shook her finger at Dar.
An amused glint appeared. “I play.” Dar replied in silken voice. “I just save all my playtime for one person.” She turned her head and looked at Kerry, catching the quick grin and returning it.
Their attention was drawn by a sudden noise nearby and they all turned to see two women facing off against each other, hands grappling at cotton shirts and faces twisted in anger. “Oh crap.” Lori rolled her eyes. “Here we go again.” She lifted her voice. “Would you two cut it the hell out and grow up?”
“You keep the hell out of this, bitch!” One of the women yelled back at her.
“Who are you calling bitch, you ugly piece of shit?” Lori got up. “Take your fucking drama out of here, yeah?”
“Lor, sit down.” Rachel grabbed her by the back of her jeans and hauled her down into the chair. “Leave them alone.”
The short, dark haired woman glowered at the two arguing women, who were now ignoring her, busy with shoving each other around. “Assholes.”
“Hey, ladies.” David, one of the church workers hurried over. He was a middle aged man with salt and pepper hair, and a neatly trimmed beard. “C’mon, c’mon now.. it’s a party! Let’s be festive!”
Dar slid her arm around Kerry’s shoulders and idly watched the entertainment unfolding before her. The two women were on again, off again partners who always seemed to be arguing about something. Dar suspected they both had some real problems and were just using each other to keep their minds off them, but she’d never gotten interested enough in the situation to find out.
That sounded so damn callous, Dar acknowledged, but the two women were nasty to most, unpleasant to the rest, and quite probably deserved each other.
“Kiss my ass, fag.” The shorter of the two women snapped at David. “Just leave us alone.”
“Hey, c’mon now.” David held his hands out. “We don’t to get nasty.” He warned. “So let’s just calm down, okay?”
“Calm this.” The same woman shot him a bird.
Kerry looked at Dar. Dar looked back at Kerry. “Do we want to get involved in this?” Kerry asked.
“Well.” Dar set her bottle of Yoohoo down. “Either we get involved, or we find a different party. I’m not in the mood to listen to this much pointless cursing.” She got up and dusted her faded jeans off, stepping around Lori’s chair and heading towards the battleground with a resigned sigh.
Kerry got up and followed, trying not to see the anticipatory grins on the faces of their friends. She caught up to Dar as she reached the outskirts of the disturbance, which had now draw a small crowd.
The two women were short and heavy set, one with close cropped hair and the other with long braids threaded with beads. The short haired woman also had an eyebrow ring, and a beautiful tattoo of a parrot on one bare shoulder.
“Okay, people.” Dar stopped just short of them, putting her hands on her hips and inclining her head slightly to look down at them. “Do what the man says and take it outside.”
David sidled up to her immediately, more than pleased to find a ready ally. Kerry stopped just a step behind her partner, folding her arms over her chest and waiting to see what would happen next, satisfied to watch the two other women with a sharp eye.
Not that she was at all worried. Dar could more than take care of herself, of Kerry, of David, and probably of everyone in sight without breaking a sweat. In her red tank top, with her burnished tan and solid muscularity, she had presence that was undeniable.
The shorter of the two women turned to confront Dar. “Did someone ask you to get in our business?” She asked.
“Yes.” Dar replied in a calm voice. “ You did, by acting like a pair of rutting jackasses. So knock it off.”
“Or?” The woman asked, sarcastically. “You gonna beat me up?”
Kerry stepped forward, about to intervene. Dar beat her to it, though, and added a tiny bump to her shoulder.
“No. You’d enjoy it too much. I’m just going to cancel all your credit cards and get your driver’s licenses revoked if you don’t get the hell out of here and stop being such a pair of pitas.” Dar replied. “Scram.”
The short woman’s eyes narrowed, and she tensed, but after a second she just shrugged and turned away. “Whatever. Asshole.” She flicked her long nailed fingers as she sauntered off, pushing her way through the crowd as she headed towards the door.
Her partner glared at Dar as well. “You think you’re so hot. Why don’t you go back to your fancy island and leave the real people alone. We were here a long time before you were.”
“Okay.” Kerry finally got a word in edgewise. “So let me get this straight. You guys cuss and punch each other and mess up everyone’s fun here… and you’re mad because we don’t like to watch?”
“Kerry Stuart.” Kerry corrected her mildly. “And if you’re that much into people watching you, why not join the theatre group? I think they’re doing MacBeth this summer.. sounds right up your alley.” She took a step forward, putting herself between Dar and the other woman. “You know what I think? I think you just like to be the center of attention, so that’s why you always act out at these shindigs.”
“Oh yeah, sure.” The woman replied. “Kiss my ass.”
“Never in a million years.” Kerry took a swig of her beer. “I have better things to kiss.” She heard a faint sound come from Dar, and knew if she turned around she’d see very hiked eyebrows. “So now that the show’s over, why not go get a drink and be normal like the rest of us.”
“Great idea.” David chimed in. “C’mon folks, let’s get the music started again. She’s right. Show’s over.” He gave two men next to him a nudge, then signaled the woman standing near the stereo system to turn it up. “Enough, enough, okay? It’s a party. Everyone chill.”
Kerry turned and bumped Dar with her head, pushing her back towards the couch. “Gwan, you high faluten rich chick, you.”
Dar chuckled under her breath, allowing herself to be herded back to the couch as the crowd slowly broke up and moved way. They settled back down together, giving Lori and Rachel a twinned roll of the eyes as a few others gathered around, watching them with casual interest. “What’s next?” Dar asked. “Unisex twister?”
Lori settled into a half unstuffed chair next to the couch. “You guys are too funny. Like Batman and Robin.” She accepted the cup Rachel handed to her, after a brief sojourn to the bar. “But those two and their little pod always had a problem with the two of you.. I’m not really sure why.”
“Our bank balances?” Kerry suggested, with a grimace. “Yeah, like we come in here in silk and pearls, flipping our minks.” She glanced down at her somewhat worn aviator pants, with their odd assortment of pockets, then indicated Dar’s faded jeans. “What’s up with that?”
“I guess some of them figure.. “ Rachel hesitated. “You know, we’re always raising cash for the place, maybe they think if you have more, you should just give it over.”
Dar snorted. “We donate.” She lifted a hand. “They want more, they can come do my job and then they can take what they want. Screw that.”
“That’s right.” Kerry said. “We’ve never said no when David’s called us.”
“Hey!’ Rachel edged back a little. “I didn’t say that’s what we thought. I just said maybe that’s what they think, you know? I mean, your paycheck’s your own, yeah? Like all of ours is.” She shrugged. “Some people just get really jealous when they see someone who has stuff they don’t.”
“Give me a break.” Dar picked up her Yoohoo and took a sip.
Kerry sucked at her beer, a look of wry cynicism crossing her face. “Isn’t that the truth… I’ve had to deal with that since I was in frilly Pampers.” She sighed. “But you know what, my family just has money. I earn mine.”
Lori perched on the arm of the chair her partner was sitting in. “What exactly do you guys do, anyway?” She asked, tactfully steering the conversation down a different track. “Investment banking?”
Dar settled back and extended her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “We’re nerds.” She explained briefly.
“Nerds?” Rachel laughed. “You’re kidding me. Really?”
Kerry nodded. “Really. Just regular, ordinary, working nerds.” She added. “Besides, we do our part here. I’m working with those kids every week, and Dar.. “ She glanced at her partner, who smiled faintly. “Dar shows up and looks great, and doesn’t get mad at me for dragging her in here all the time.”
“Heh.” The dark haired woman responded.
“You could join our community action group.” Lori suggested. “We’ve got a lot of stuff planned for this year.. lobbying and all that. Bet you’re good at it.”
“Bet I’m not.” Dar said. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Both women across from them looked uncomfortable at that, Kerry noticed. But it was the truth, and she knew Dar generally refused to sugarcoat her answers. “Honestly, our schedule doesn’t permit either of us a lot of slack in doing organized things.” Kerry said. “We never know when we might have to travel, or get stuck late taking care of a problem.”
“Okay, just a suggestion.” Lori said. “I’m getting another beer. Want one?” She asked Rachel.
Lori got up and left. Kerry used the slight pause to finish up her beer, and note that Dar had done the same with her Yoohoo. “Want another one?” She indicated the bottle. “Or something stronger?”
Dar fiddled with the bottle, then handed it over. “Nah. I’ll stick to this. Thanks.”
Kerry eased off the couch and gave her a pat on the knee as she planned a path through the growing crowd towards the bar.
Rachel waited for Kerry to vanish, then turned her attention back to the tall, dark haired woman on the couch. “Nerd, huh?”
Dar plucked at the seam of her denims. “Yeah.”
“Know what I think?” Dar sat back, letting the car’s air conditioning cool her off.
Kerry was curled up in the passenger seat, looking tousled and somewhat aggravated. “What?”
“I think we need to find a new church.”
“Ungh.” Kerry rested her head against the leather seat back. “Tell you what. Give me tomorrow off, and I’ll find us a new church. How’s that?” She shifted, grimacing at the cramping that had manifested with aching suddenness, giving her an unwelcome, yet welcome excuse to leave the party.
Dar glanced at her in perfect sympathy. “Sweetheart, you can have the day off any time you want.” She replied. “I know your area’s covered.”
Kerry grimaced again. “You know what’s not covered?” She asked mournfully. “I forgot to stop and pick up supplies at Walgreen’s.” Her eyes met Dar’s. “And you know I can’t handle the kind you use.”
Dar put the car into reverse and commenced backing out. “Guess we’re going to the drugstore then.” She said. “S’all right. I need some stuff too. We’re low on Advil…”
“Ahhhh!!!” Kerry squeaked.
“And I need some batteries for my digital.” Her partner finished. “So put the seat back and relax, and we’ll get ourselves taken care of.”
Kerry took advantage of the offer, releasing the seat and tilting it back about halfway. She closed her eyes and left the driving to her partner, idly listening to the soft new age music coming from the speakers. “They really were kinda sucky today, huh?” She said. “I wonder why? We never had them act like that before. Did we do something I don’t remember?”
Dar was silent for a while, drumming her thumbs on the steering wheel as she made her way through the surface streets towards the drugstore. “I don’t know.” She finally muttered. “It just pisses me off that they act like we owe them something all the time.”
Did they? Kerry pondered the idea. “Well, most churches do assume their memberships will do stuff like bake cookies and put money in the plate, Dar.” She conceded. “I know ours did at home. Big time. Not that anyone ever said anything outright, but boy.. if you skipped a week, the looks you got.”
Dar made a rude noise.
“Well, you know, they have to raise money somehow.” Kerry felt herself in the odd position of defending a faith she often was at serious odds with. “They have to keep the place up, and pay the pastor, and do community programs.. the money has to come from somewhere.”
Dar pulled into the parking lot and parked in front of the drugstore. She set the parking brake, but left the car running. “Yeah, I know.” She opened the driver’s side door. “It’s not that part I mind. They do good stuff especially for those kids you mess with. It’s the other stuff they expect us to do.” She got out. “As if just because we’re gay, we have to be revolutionaries about it. Not my gig.”
Kerry watched in bemusement as her partner shut the door gently, and strode off towards the entrance to the Walgreens.
Dar waited in line, glancing at the items available for sale on the nearby racks out of boredom. She had her chosen items, obtained in quick order, but there was only one clerk working and several people ahead of her waiting to pay.
C’mon.. I’ve got melting ice cream here. Dar glared evilly at the line from behind her shades.
The clerk, unfortunately, was busy trying to understand the request of the first woman in line, who was attempting to obtain a specific type of cigarette using a language even Dar wasn’t familiar with. It was hard to say at this point, which one of them was the more frustrated.
Her eyes fell on a shelf about thigh level, and she examined the contents, a grudging smile slowly appearing as she reached down and selected one of the items. After a quick look around, she added it to her basket, then resumed looking around.
The woman ahead of her let out a deliberately audible sigh. “Jesus.”
The clerk glanced up at her, giving her an apologetic grimace, but slightly shrugging her shoulders. The foreign woman pulled out a piece of paper from her purse and unfolded it, showing it to the clerk with a bit of impatience. “Ma’am, we don’t have those.”
The woman questioned her in her own language.
“Ma’am, we don’t have those.” The clerk repeated, with commendable patience. She pointed at the picture in the paper and shook her head. The woman shook the paper at her, her voice rising.
“Jesus.” The customer in front of Dar repeated. “What an idiot.” With a disgusted look, she tossed her packages onto the counter and walked away, leaving the store with a slap at the sliding door on her way out. The man ahead of her did the same, shooting the clerk a bird as he followed suit.
At the same moment, the foreign woman grabbed back her paper and shoved it in her purse, storming off and walking quickly through the door on the heels of the other two.
That left the clerk staring after them, and Dar with no one ahead of her in line. Not one to look a gift tourist in the mouth, she stepped forward and began removing her choices from her basket, placing them down on the register counter.
“Why do people do that?” The clerk wondered, as she picked up the first item and scanned it. “Just come to a place and not know how to communicate?”
Dar studied her from behind her wraparound shades. “To give Americans a taste of what it’s like to deal with them overseas?” She suggested mildly.
“Huh?” The girl frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You ever been in another country?” Dar inquired.
“No.” The girl replied. “Why would I want to go to another country?”
“Doesn’t matter. How much?” Dar indicated the register. She watched the total come up, and swiped her ATM card through the reader, punching in he code with an impatient motion. The machine hesitated, then regurgitated her receipt, which she snagged along with her purchases from the clerks’ hands. “Thanks.”
“Bye.” Now bereft of customers, the clerk waggled her fingers at Dar. “Have a nice day.”
Kerry had amused herself by trying to make up stories about the people she watched coming out of the store while waiting for Dar’s return. The first man who had come out seemed to have gotten something he wasn’t too sure about, based on how he kept looking inside the bag he’d carried out as he walked to his car. She decided it was a choice between hair growth formula, some feminine products, or birth control.
She watched him until he got into his car, whereupon he drew something out of the bag and took a bite of it, skewing her theory.
The next two women who exited were apparently together, talking non-stop in Spanish as they walked right past the Lexus and got into a maroon station wagon right next to her. They started their car, and without breaking their stream of discussion, began to pull out.
Kerry’s eyes widened as she realized the car’s front wheels were turned sharply to the right, aiming the vehicle right for the passenger side door inches from her. Reacting instinctively, she leaned over and slammed her hand on the Lexus’ horn, closing her eyes and sprawling half over Dar’s seat as she waited for the crunch and impact.
After a moment’s silence, however, she opened her eyes and peered over her shoulder. The maroon station wagon was gone, and as she straightened up and looked behind her, she spotted it pulling out into traffic with a squeal of tires.
A blue Jeep just barely missed sideswiping it. Kerry blew her hair out of her eyes and faced forward again, deciding the women had probably picked up either legal stimulants or prescription sedatives or maybe a combination of both.
Another customer stormed by the front of the Lexus, walking with short, furious steps. She banged into a trashcan mounted firmly on the sidewalk, and shoved it away from her with a curse audible even through the closed windows of the Lexus. She gave the can a vicious kick, before she continued on and around the corner of the store to the other side of the parking lot.
Didn’t like her one hour photos? Kerry wondered. She had little time to consider it, because the woman was followed almost immediately by another, equally upset looking, who seemed almost in tears. She walked over to a small four door car near the entrance and spoke to the man inside it, showing him something she had in her hands.
The man grabbed it, then shoved her backwards, with an angry snarl. He pushed the car door open and headed for the door to the drugstore, leaving the woman behind. She looked unhappily at the car for a brief moment, then went around and got into the passenger side, pulling down the sunshade and peering anxiously into the mirror.
Now, what was the story there? Kerry wondered, but not for long because her peripheral vision was filled with an approaching figure that captured her attention fully as she turned her head to watch Dar walk over to her.
Just the sight of that angular face made her smile. Kerry could feel her facial muscles responding, and she watched Dar react and return the grin as she opened the door and slid inside bringing a puff of hot, moist air and the scent of the apricot scrub still lingering on her skin. “That didn’t take long. Thanks for getting my stuff.”
Dar handed her the bag. “No problem. Careful, there’s a jug of..”
“Ice cream in here.” Kerry finished, peering inside. “And.. what in the.. “ She removed something from the bag and held it up, letting the plastic bag drop down to the floor between her hiking boots. “Dar, what is this?”
Dar was concentrating on removing the Lexus from the parking lot and keeping the body of the car intact while she did so. “Um… it’s a hamster.”
Kerry tapped the small, furry foot, and the stuffed animal started to dance to the tune of “Over There…” “It’s a dancing hamster.” She observed, dancing a little in her seat along with it. “It’s a dancing hamster in a sailor suit, Dar.”
“Yeah.” Her partner peered fiercely through the windshield. “You were calling me a hamster the other day so..”
A giggle worked it’s way out of Kerry’s chest. She set the creature on her lap, and tapped it’s foot again, watching it dance and squiggle in it’s white outfit and hat. “Is this supposed to be you?”
Dar cleared her throat. “I thought you’d think it was cute.”
“Hehehehehehehehe.” The blond woman let out a long, low chortle. “Oh, you’re so right, I do.” She danced with her new little friend. “Wait till your dad sees it.”
Dar turned her head and gave her a look over the tops of her sunglasses.
“I’m going to put this on my desk.” Kerry decided.
“At work??” Dar’s eyes nearly popped.
Kerry reached over and turned her head back forward, as the light turned green and they were free to proceed across to the causeway home. “Don’t’ be goofy. Of course not at work. At home.”
Dar settled back in her seat, relieved. “Yeah, well.. I had some time to kill at the register. They were short handed.”
“Though… it might be a great ice breaker at new client meetings…” Kerry mused.
Dar turned to stare at her again, only to find mischievous green eyes waiting in knowing silence. “You’re lucky I love you.” She mock growled.
Kerry’s smile softened and gentled. “Don’t I know how lucky I am.” She replied. “And I will find us a different church, Dar. I like belonging to something like that. It gives me a sense of community here. But not at the expense of your being comfortable with it.”
Dar fell silent, as she directed the car onto the ferry base. “Does it have to be a church?” She asked, as they pulled up to the cones. “Maybe we could just join a computer club or something?”
Kerry rested her chin on her fist. “We spend enough time with nerds.” She disagreed. “Hey.. how about a biker club?”
Dar covered her eyes with one hand.
Now it was Kerry’s turn to be a couch potato, and she readily took advantage of it, tucking the light, worn childhood quilt she’d brought back from Michigan around her as she watched the late news. She had a cup of hot blackberry tea on the table nearby, and sufficient quantities of painkillers to render her acceptably comfortable, at least for the moment.
They had paused at the Island Market on the way home and gotten some fish filets, which Dar had insisted on cooking. Much to Kerry’s surprise, and also to her partner’s she suspected, the relatively simple broiling experiment had turned out very tasty and after that, and some of Dar’s newly purchased ice cream, the stresses from the party had finally dissipated.
“Nothing.” Dar looked up from her perch sprawled across the love seat. “I don’t get it. There’s nothing here.” She lifted a hand and let it drop, shaking her head at the screen of her laptop. “No mention, no little notes in the paper, nothing in the trades… a major contract falls through, and all you see is news about rugby.”
Kerry chuckled softly. “I don’t know, sweetie. I think I like those priorities for a change.” She took a sip of her tea. “Oh well. We’ll find out eventually what the deal is. Once we get to those ships, someone’ll talk. They always do, Dar.”
“Mmph.” Dar was rattling away at her keyboard.
Kerry returned her attention to the big screen television, where an overly earnest reporter was relating the day’s news in serious, emphatic tones. The shot cut away to a nighttime scene, with flashing police lights, and after studying it for a minute, she frowned. “Hey, Dar? Look.”
“Mm?” Pale blue eyes flicked to her, then to the television. “What am I looking at?”
“Isn’t that the Walgreens? The one we were at today?”
Dar leaned on the love seat arm and peered at the screen. “I don’t.. hell, they all look alike to me, Kerry. Maybe it is. Why?”
“Shh.” Kerry turned the sound up to listen.
“Police are unsure of how the woman got left in the trunk, or who might have done this to her. She was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital where she’s in critical condition.” The reporter on the scene drew back, showing a small, four door car parked on the side of the building, it’s trunk hanging open, having obviously been forced. “The car was rented, police say, by an unidentified man they are now looking for.”
“Huh.” Dar murmured. “Someone locked in a trunk? Lucky they didn’t croak in this heat.” She shook her head and went back to her laptop screen. “Wonder when it happened?”
“I don’t know.” Kerry leaned forward. “They can’t have found it that long ago.. it’s a live report. Oh, Dar.. I’d hate to think that poor woman was in that trunk when we were there!”
Dar looked up again, studying the car. “We weren’t on that side of the building.” She said. “Car looks a little familiar though…. But it’s a common rental type. Dime a dozen, Ker.”
“Yeah.” Something was niggling at Kerry’s memory, and she rested her chin on her fist as the news went on to another story. After a few minutes of trying to root it out, however, she gave up and tuned back in to the reporter. “Ah… gonna have rain tomorrow.” She chortled softly. “Sure you don’t want to spend the day inside with me watching it?”
“Mm.” Dar gave her a narrow-eyed look. “Temptress.”
Kerry gave her best impression of sultriness, aware that her Pooh t-shirt was probably skewing the impact just a trifle. “Actually, I’ve got a ton of stuff to do tomorrow. I want to get a hair-cut for starters, and my car’s due for service.”
“Thought you were going to relax?” Dar reminded her.
“I will.” Kerry said. “But I want to get something accomplished too, so I don’t feel so guilty thinking of you slaving away in the office stuck in your monkey suit.”
“Ahh… and I have to meet with all the international sales directors. They’re in tomorrow.” Dar reminded her. “So you can really pity me. Maria has a four hour block scheduled in the afternoon.”
Kerry rolled over on to her back and watched Dar’s profile as she worked on her machine. “I could pass on having a day off.” She suggested. “You want some backup?”
“Nah.” Dar glanced up at her, and grinned. “But thanks for the offer.”
“Okay.” Kerry wiggled her feet under their cotton covering. “But I’ll make sure you’ve got something great to come home to.”
The blue eyes twinkled. “Something other than you? What else you think I need?”
Kerry sighed happily.
“Besides, you’re going to have to run the ball game with Quest.” Dar continued dryly. “Don’t thank me yet.” She went back to her typing, listening to the soft chuckle as Kerry rolled back onto her side and the news switched over to sports.
“Okay.” She reviewed her work for the last time, studying the presentation she’d put together for the meeting. “I think that’ll work.” She set the laptop down on the coffee table and stretched, reaching out to scratch Chino’s head.
It was a completely ordinary Sunday night at home. They usually watched whatever was on either the Learning Channel, or Discovery, or a movie, then the news before getting together whatever they needed for work the next week and going to bed.
Comfortingly predictable. Dar regarded the shots of football players practicing in the hot sun with a touch of bemusement. “Y’know, they took us to see those guys do that once.”
“That?” Kerry pointed. “You mean, summer practice?”
“Yeah.” Dar said. “They used to take school kids on different field trips. See the zoo, that sort of thing. A rakish grin appeared. “Summer day, ninety degrees, no water anywhere. We all ran off and raided a McArthur Dairy milk truck that’d stopped to make a delivery. Nearly got tossed in jail.”
Kerry started laughing.
“Haven’t liked watching those guys play since.”
Kerry whistled under her breath as she removed a last load of laundry from the washer and tossed it into the dryer. She set the machine and started it running, then took her basketful of already dried clothes and ambled back through the kitchen towards Dar’s bedroom, closely followed by an attentive Chino.
She put the basket down on the edge of the waterbed and started sorting it’s contents out. “You know what, Chino?” She addressed their pet. “Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I actually like doing this stuff.”
Kerry opened Dar’s underwear drawer and began to store neatly folded pairs inside it. She’d gotten two of them inside when the phone rang, and she reached across the dresser to pick up the portable resting there. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Ms. Stuart?” A man’s voice asked. “This is Bob, from South Beach Lexus.”
“Yup, it’s me.” Kerry agreed. “The buggy ready?”
“Not quite yet, ma’am, we really want to replace the break pads. You’ve been kinda tough on em.”
Kerry frowned at the phone. “I have?”
“Well, they’re showing a lot of wear.. we can let them go for a while but..”
“No – go ahead, by all means replace them.” Kerry interrupted him. “I just didn’t think I jammed them on that much.. guess I’ll have to pay more attention to how I’m driving, huh?”
The man cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, you know, a lot of people have the same problem.. must be the traffic down here. Anyway, we’ll get them changed out, and my guy’s gonna deliver the car back over to you round dinnertime, if that’s okay.”
“Great.” Kerry answered readily. “Sounds perfect. Thanks!” She put the phone down and went back to her folding, inspecting each item for possible holes before she tucked it away. Most of Dar’s briefs were plain, and somewhat ordinary, but she did have a selection of whimsical ones most of which Kerry had purchased for her.
And of course, the red silk ones. Kerry smiled as she put those in the drawer, glancing at herself in the mirror as she finished. A hand lifted and riffled through her newly cut hair, and she gave the results an approving nod, pleased with her day so far.
The phone rang again, and she gave it a look of mild exasperation, before she picked up the receiver and answered it. “Hello?”
“Hi.” Dar’s voice responded. “You’re not answering your cell phone.”
Kerry sucked in breath. “Oops.. sorry. It’s upstairs charging.” She said. “And I’m downstairs playing with your undies. What’s up?”
“Ahh… glad I finally learned my lesson and don’t keep you on speaker.” Dar chuckled. “Listen, I had to put the afternoon session on delay. Transmax up in New York called, with a brand new project they just threw together – needing triple their current capacity. I need to quote it.”
“Hey, great.” Kerry smiled. “You’re not going to cause me a bottleneck up there, are you? I’ve got a lot of very touchy accounts up in those parts.”
“Would I do that to you?” Dar’s voice sounded relaxed and amused. “I may have to fly up there and meet with them, though, and I heard from Quest. He’s pulling together a meeting of all the bidders at the Intercontinental on Wednesday.”
Kerry nodded, even though her partner could not see her. “Well, you said I’d be spearheading that anyway.” She remarked. “So forward the info on to me, boss, and I’ll take care of it.”
“Already done.” Dar replied. “Looks like I’ll be late. We’re just going to start the sales meeting in an hour.”
“I’ll be waiting for you.” There was a momentary silence, bringing a knowing smile to Kerry’s face. “Give me a buzz before you leave, okay?”
“I will.” Dar answered softly. “See you later.”
Kerry put the phone down, her smile still lingering as she picked up her now empty basket and walked back through the living room, her mind busy with planning her strategy for Quest’s meeting. A bright flash on the television broke her concentration, however, and she turned to look at the afternoon news blurb. “Oh.” She paused, as they seemed to be continuing the news report from the previous night, now showing a picture of the man the police were looking for.
Kerry blinked, and then she simply stared at the picture, matching the somewhat blurry details with a memory from the previous day, from the car across from theirs, in the lazy afternoon sunlight of a summer day.
Was it the same jerk?
She squinted at the picture, which seemed to be from a passport. “Son of a bitch.” She whispered. “I think it is.”
“So.” The low, powerful voice rolled out over the room. “As you can see, the capacity will remain relatively constant across the board, throughout the international and national grids, but our focus is going to be on refining the bandwidth usage and streamlining demand service.”
A grid flashed onto the screen. “The net effect of that project will be for us to be able to add another fifty percent in capacity without increasing the hardware.” Dar paused and leaned on the lecturn. “Any.. further.. questions?”
She let her eyes sweep the room, suspecting the edge in her voice was suppressing the raised hands at last. “All right. Thank you, folks. That’s all.” Dar stepped back, acknowledging the applause in the room with a curt nod before she shut down the screens and retired the lecturn, glad the damn thing was finally over.
Dar dropped down into her seat at the head of the presentation table, it’s cool leather closing around her as the noise level in the room rose. She picked up her glass of water and drained it, glad of the moisture for her dry, scratchy throat.
The crowd of sales directors was breaking up into clusters, all carrying printed hands outs of her presentation as they discussed the session. Dar was happy to be left relatively alone, isolated at the front of the room with just enough space between her and the rest of them that even the few eyeing her hadn’t gotten up the courage to approach.
Dar assumed a dour glare to reinforce the distance, exhausted from her two hour speech. It had gone over all right, she thought, but that, and the hour of questions after it had frazzled both her patience and her tolerance for occasionally stupid questions.
She did not want to entertain any more of them right now. Though the presentation room was an interior space and she could not see windows from where she was, she knew it was getting dark outside and the long day was nearing its end at last.
Jose finished off his conversation and headed her way. Dar fixed him with her glare, but the Sales VP ignored it and circled the table, taking a seat right next to her. “Good! It was very good, Dar.”
“We have too much people scared out there.” Jose went on, resting his silver silk covered elbows on the table. “Everybody was running like chickens. Now, they see we have a plan.”
“Uh huh.” Dar rested her elbow on the chair arm and propped her head up on it. “We have a plan.”
Jose looked at her. “What is wrong with you?”
Dar’s eyebrows hiked.
“You are acting like, you do not care.” Jose said. “These people, what you say to them, that matters how they do their job, Dar.”
“I know.” The dark haired woman agreed. “I do care. It’s just been a damn long day, Jose. It may be exciting to them, but to me, it’s a rehash of the same damn speech I’ve already given the board, given the international board, and given the lot of you down here. I’m tired of it.”
The Sales VP snorted. “You have no attention. It is just like my son. He looks at one thing, and then..” Jose snapped his fingers. “It is the old news, and something else he goes to find. You are like that.” He pointed at Dar. “Always, you have been like that.”
Dar tried to get mad at him, but didn’t find it in herself. She ended up just shrugging instead. “Yeah. And?”
Jose also shrugged. “Nothing!” He said. “I will tell you something however, Dar. Being married is good for you. I say so. My wife, she says so too. She told me she thinks you are not so much a bitch since then.”
“Thanks.” Dar drawled. “Your being married hasn’t made you less of an asshole. How’d she figure that?”
Jose took a breath to answer, a red line creeping up his neck as he lifted his hand to shake a finger at Dar. “What did you say? I am being here so nice to you, and what is this???” His voice rose in outrage, attracting attention from the crowd still chatting around them in the room.
Dar snickered at him. “Miss the old days, Jose?” She inquired in a velvet tone.
“Puta.” He growled, slapping his hand on the table. “There is the bitch I remember.”
“Oh yeah.” Dar leaned forward, pinning him intently with her eyes. “It’s in there. It just takes a lot more now to get it to show.” She got up and twitched her sleekly tailored jacket straight. “Gentlemen.” She gave the now watching salesmen a gracious nod. “Ladies.” She added, to the two women directors standing nearby. “Jose.” She tacked on just for fun, as she stepped around the table and headed for the door. “Have a good night.”
“Wait, Dar!” One of the women directors hustled to catch up to her, the other woman close behind. “Can we steal a moment of your time?”
Dar actually growled at them. “You had three hours of my time.”
The women eased out of the conference room with her. “Just a few quick things.. while you’re walking?”
“Talk fast.” Dar headed for the elevator. “Stacy, I’ve said all I wanted to say for the night in there.” She hit the door button and headed into the car almost without a pause as her shoulders just barely cleared the opening.
The two women followed her hastily inside. “Isn’t about the presentation.” Stacy Allman said. “We wanted to talk to you about the ship contract.” She glanced at the other woman. “Brenda and I happened to be in the same bar as some old friends of yours, and we got an unintentional earful.”
Dar leaned against the wall as the car rose to the fourteenth floor. “Everybody got a damned earful.” She said. “I got nothing but the entire time I was up there.” She studied the other two women, who could have been twins in their conservative suits and stylish haircuts.
Stacy waited for the doors to open before she answered. “Dar, let us take you out for a drink.” She said, as they entered the quiet, half darkened floor. “You need to hear this, and the mausoleum’s really not the place, if you catch my drift.”
She caught it. Dar headed for her office, holding her outer door open before following the two saleswomen inside. She wasn’t especially close friends of either, but they were both relatively old timers and she’d had a somewhat common bond with the few women who had made the climb up the ladder with and around her.
Both were savvy. Stacy was from New York, and Brenda was from Los Angeles, and though both women were straight as boards, neither had ever shown the veiled aversion to Dar’s lifestyle she’d detected in others in the company. “I don’t know, people. It’s been a long damn day.”
“Cmon, Dar.” Stacy followed her into her inner office, pausing to look around as Dar continued to her desk and started to pack up her briefcase. “Huh. This place looks a little different.”
Dar’s head lifted, and she looked around her office in mild confusion, expecting to find the carpet had been replaced in her absence or a different color wall weave installed. But the large space seemed much as she left it, so she glanced at Stacy to see what she was talking about. “What?”
“Listen, Dar, we won’t keep you all night.” Stacy dropped the subject and took a seat in front of Dar’s desk instead. “But I really think you need to hear what we heard. How about the lounge in the Hyatt… give me a half hour, huh?”
Dar considered the question, as her peripheral vision tracked Brenda examining the collection of photos on her wall credenza shelves. “All right.” She decided. “Go on. I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.”
“Cool.” Stacy got up. “Ten minutes, in the bar. Good deal, Dar. I think once we finish up, you’ll agree it wasn’t a waste of either your time or ours.”
Dar continued to stuff papers into her briefcase as the two left, only stopping when the door closed. She rested her knuckles on her desk and leaned her weight on them, then she grunted and straightened up, slapping one of the speed dial buttons on her phone almost without looking.
The phone only rang once before it was answered. “Hey, sweetie.”
Dar’s lips twitched. “You know, it could have been someone other than me calling from here.” She commented wryly.
“Not on our home number.” Kerry replied, a smile evident in her voice. “They’d have called on the cell.”
Eh. True. “You’re right. Shows how long a day it’s been.” Dar reached up and rubbed her left temple. “I’m done with the sales crap..”
“How’d it go?”
“All right, I guess.” Her partner replied. “But two of the directors caught me afterward.. apparently they’ve got some bs they overheard from our friends. Want to spill it to me offsite.”
Silence. Dar could almost imagine the look of skeptical surprise on Kerry’s face. “Yeah, seemed pretty stupid to me, but I’ve known the two of them for ten years. They’re not idiots.”
“Sounds pretty bizarre.”
“Anyway, I told them I’d meet them over at the Hyatt.” Dar said. “Shouldn’t take long. I’m sure we already heard most of it last week from the jackasses mouths.” She was aware of a pensive quiet from the phone. “You interested in joining us?”
Kerry chuckled, after a moment’s hesitation. “I think you know me too well.”
Dar smiled. “Hey, me and two straight women. What a party. Of course I’d invite you.” She finished packing up her case. “Especially if you’re in those cute overalls you were wearing the other day.. that’d shock all the Cubans at the Hyatt happy hour.”
Kerry chuckled again, but this time the sound was entirely different. “Oh, the scandals you weave, Madame Roberts. No, you go meet your undercover friends, and get the dirt. I’ll be here hanging out doing the domestic thing.”
Dar’s eyebrows lifted. “Domestic thing?”
“Cookies?” Dar’s ears perked up. “You’re making fresh cookies?”
“The Food Network is dangerous.” Kerry asserted. “But if you time it right, you might get some hot from the oven.” She teased. “So don’t get too dirty.”
“They’ll be lucky if I sit down.” Dar said. “See you in a little bit, Ker.”
“Okay – hey, listen. Remember that story from the news last night?” Kerry said. “The car at the drug store?”
“Yeah?” Dar’s hand hovered over the button.
“We were there when they were. I saw the guy they’re looking for. He was a creep.”
It was the last thing she’d expected to hear. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Kerry said. “But I’ll tell you all about it when you get home. Go scoot and find your snitches.”
“Okay. Yeah.” Dar replied. “Strange timing, I guess. Be home soon.” She released the line and shouldered her briefcase, turning off the desk lamp as she headed for the door.
Middle of the summer on a Monday made for a very slow night at the bar. Dar gave the greeter at the door a nod as she entered, sweeping her eyes around the sparsely occupied lounge until she spotted her two colleagues near one of the floor to ceiling plate glass windows.
Stacy waved at her. Dar headed in that direction, only to be intercepted by a hovering and obviously bored waiter. She stopped as the man looked inquiringly at her.
“Can I get you something, ma’am? We have chocolate martinis on special tonight.”
Much as the thought of a chocolate anything was intriguing her at the moment, Dar shook her head. “Jamaican coffee, please.” She indicated the small group of chairs near the window. “I’ll be over there.”
“Right away, ma’am.”
Dar continued on her way and took one of the seats opposite Stacy and Rhonda. They both had glasses in front of them, with enough half eaten fruit matter to indicate their alcoholic content. “All right. So what’s up?”
“Gee, Dar.. it’s great to see you too.” Stacy gave her a wry grin. “Been a while.”
Dar crossed her arms. “Half hour, didn’t you say?” She asked pointedly. “I didn’t come here to be social.” She accepted the steaming mug the waiter handed her, and took a cautious sip. The coffee was hot, and pungent with a touch of rum and Tia Maria.
“No, you never really were the social butterfly.’ Stacy acknowledged. “Though we had some pretty good times back in the old days, out on the road.”
“Eh.” Dar tilted her head slightly. “I still remember you ending up doing the tango with the chef at that Italian place in New Mexico.” She admitted. “They ever stop teasing you about it?”
“No.” Stacy laughed. “They haven’t. Trust you to remember that one, too. I think that was the first night I ever saw you drink something other than milk.” She added. “Though tough as that damn account was, we were all due it. What a hemmorhoid case that was.”
Ah, yes. Dar smiled faintly, and nodded. “Yeah, it was.” She agreed.
“Dar, is that the first place you banged heads with that Shari woman? I remember her from that account.. you fired her there, didn’t you?” Rhonda asked. “That’s why she was so familiar when she came into that bar.. I remember her pitching a fit in the building as security was throwing her out.”
“Yeah.” Stacy nodded. “I didn’t see her when she came in, but Rho did, and then when she and whatserface..”
“Michelle Graver.” Dar supplied evenly.
“Yeah, from Vista, wasn’t it?”
Stacy slowly twirled her straw as she sucked on it. “They sat down, and it wasn’t a minute until they were yelling at each other, and the first word I recognized was your name.”
Dar snorted. “Yeah, well.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Shari and I go a long way back.” She said. “So it wasn’t the first time we’d met. I had a decision I had to make and it could have gone either way, but she’d taken the piss out of me one time and I gave her the boot.”
“I remember.” Rhonda signaled the waiter, and indicated their near empty glasses. “Dar? You up for a second?”
Dar glanced at her cup, which was still half full. “I’m fine.”
“So, anyway.” Stacy retrieved a tortilla chip from the table and loaded it with salsa. “They didn’t know us from Adam’s housecat. They sat at the table behind us, and let me tell you, they took into each other like nothing.”
The waiter returned, putting down two fresh fruity looking drinks. “Anything else I can get you ladies? Some hors deouvres, maybe?” He picked up the basket of tortillas. “I’ll get some fresh chips here.. would you like to try one of our combo plates?”
“Sure.” Rhonda shooed him away. “Thanks.”
Dar slowly sipped her coffee, appreciating the slight burn as the alcohol hit her in the belly. For her, that night in New Mexico had been a great one. The sense of personal vindication had nearly sent her giddy, and she’d more than welcomed the chance to share a night out with her co-workers, though they’d never know just why their sullen and often dour regional tech manager had suddenly decided to be social.
She’d had fun. Gotten a little drunk, but not nearly as much as they had, and enjoyed the simple pleasure of sitting back and relaxing after a tough day of work. Even going back to her hotel room alone hadn’t bothered her, and she remembered spending time out on the room’s balcony looking out over the New Mexico desert being happy for a change.
Ah. Or she’d thought she’d been happy. Dar felt her cheeks move into a silent grin. Now she knew she’d just been satisfied because she’d had a much closer acquaintance with happy over the last couple of years. “So, they were fighting.”
“Like weasels.” Stacy agreed. “Graver was pissed off because of some plan of hers that’d gotten screwed up.. and I swear, I thought she said she’d offered you a job.”
”She did.” Dar acknowledged. “Her damn company recruited Kerry and I, matter of fact.”
Stacy goggled at her. “Really?”
“Had no clue who we were, but yeah.” The dark haired woman chuckled. “We were in the show room night before it opened getting our gear set and they thought we were staff geeks.”
Rhonda started laughing, covering her mouth hastily. “Oh, my god.”
“Wasn’t funny then, but I’m laughing now.” Dar admitted.
“Jesus.” Stacy shook her head. “So anyway, Dar… to get to the point of why we dragged you out here, and didn’t just share a cup of coffee in the lunchroom… the Shari woman said she’d gotten back some information on Kerry, and she told Graver they’d been going at everything the wrong way.”
Just hearing Kerry’s name triggered Dar’s baser instincts. The evening stopped being amusing, and she leaned forward slightly, her voice dropping noticeably. “Yeah?”
Stacy paused, studying Dar for a moment. “I just realized I’ve never met our VP of Operations.” She commented incongruously. “But I think I want to.”
Dar simply waited, her coffee forgotten.
Rhonda leaned forward. “What Shari said was that she had some dope on Kerry, and she told Graver to just leave the whole thing to her. She said if she could get to Kerry, then they didn’t have anything to worry about on this ship contract.”
“Dar?” Stacy uttered, into the quiet that fell. “Do you realize your eyes are actually really shooting sparks off? You’re going to set the carpet on fire. Just take it easy, okay?”
With a great deal of effort, Dar forced herself to ease back into the chair. Her heartbeat was a thunder in her ears, and she could feel twitching in her forearms as though her hands wanted to clench into fists. She took a short breath, and released it. “Bitch.” She enunciated precisely.
The waiter arrived with a plate of hot tidbits, which he put down, along with a fresh basket of chips. “Here you go, ladies.” He turned to Dar. “Are you finished there, ma’am? Would you like another?”
Dar handed him her coffee cup. “Bring me a tall glass of milk, please.”
The waiter blinked. “Milk?”
“Milk.” Dar repeated. “Cold milk.” She clarified, as he turned to go. After he left again, she turned back and steepled her fingers, peering at Stacy and Rhonda with half closed eyes.
“You’re really pissed.” Stacy murmured.
“Family trait.” Dar finally answered, as her heart started to settle down. “But thanks for telling me. Not that I think they’ve got anything Kerry wouldn’t do anything but laugh at, but it’s good to know.”
Rhonda took a mini-taco, and handed it over to Dar, along with a napkin. “That’s why we really didn’t want to say this in the office, Dar. It’s.. that woman’s got a grudge against you and it’s all personal. Even Graver said so. She said she was obsessed.”
Dar mechanically took the taco and examined it, before she took a bite, chewing without tasting it and swallowing it to get it out of her mouth. “Yeah.” She took the glass of milk from the attentive waiter and downed a mouthful. “She’s something.”
“So you think she was bs’ing?” Stacy said. “About Kerry?”
Dar waited for her guts to unclench. “Yes.” She replied evenly. “Shari always believes she’s knows the angles on everything. Always has.”
“Mm.” Rhonda nodded. “Yeah, seemed like it to me. Big mouth, all air.”
Stacy took a napkin and a potato puff. “Well, all I can say is I hope we wipe the floor with them. I’m really tired of their sales punks lording it over us every time we meet telling us all about the latest contract they stole from us.” She settled back in her seat. “Especially since they’re targeting three of my big ones up for renewal. I’m getting a lot of pressure to cut our costs, Dar.”
Dar peered into her milk. “I’m not going to play their game.” She said. “I’ve already said that. No contract gets signed that loses us money. I don’t care how many they think they can take.”
“We don’t have a lot of leverage.” Rhonda said, hesitantly. “I mean, I know our service can’t be beat, but..”
“But nothing.” Dar cut her off quietly. “All it’s going to take is one big screwup, which they can’t cover. So keep your shorts on, and don’t panic.”
Stacy exhaled. “Well, the trade show helped.” She conceded. “I have to admit, Dar, there were six of us in the regional office watching Tech TV, and I hope your ears were burning because we were cheering you on like gangbusters. You go girl.”
Dar relaxed a little and leaned back. After the first shock, her mind was now wrapping around and assimilating the information Stacy and Rhonda had given her, and with effort, separating it from the emotional charge.
“Hey, Dar?” Rhonda suddenly leaned forward.
“Yes?” Dar looked up and waited, finishing up her milk.
“Sorry if we got you angry.”
A half shrug moved the silk over Dar’s shoulder. “S’allright.”
Stacy swirled her drink in one hand. “You know you totally freaked out most of the sales force when that whole thing with you and Kerry came out. I remember we were at an incentive meeting, and everyone was just stunned.”
Dar shrugged again.
“What would you have done if Alastair hadn’t been cool with it?” Stacy asked curiously.
“Just like that?”
Dar snorted. “Yeah. Just like that.” She replied. “Now if you ladies don’t mind, I’m gonna go home and get out of this monkey suit.” She set her glass down and stood up, towering over them in the low lighting. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Sure you won’t have another, Dar?” Stacy held up her glass. “For old time’s sake?”
“No thanks.” Dar lifted a hand and waved briefly. “Night.”
Stacy watched her disappear, then lifted her glass. “There’s a woman who has something she wants to go home to.” She chuckled wryly. “Bless her heart.”
Rhonda nodded. “Glad we told her.” She summed up. “Telegenics won’t stand a chance now, the little bastards. She’ll take em out for sure.”
“For sure.” Stacy touched her glass to Rhondas, and they both took a solemn drink.