Kerry studied her nicely chilled cookie dough seriously. “What do you think, Chino?” She asked, leaning both hands on the marble counter. “Do you think your mommy would settle for just plain, ordinary cookies?”
“Mm.. no, I don’t think so either.” Kerry turned and went to one of the drawers, pulling it open and rummaging in it. “You know, I never, ever though I’d ever use that old Christmas gift of Aunt Eenie’s, Chino, I really didn’t. I just never did see myself wearing an apron, making batches of cookies for the kiddies.”
Kerry removed what she was looking for and took it back to the counter, opening a baggie and dumping out a pile of thin aluminum. “Hm.” Her finger pushed aside several. “Christmas tree, no… Pumpkin.. no… four leaf clover.. no.. ah.” She selected one and held it up. “That’s the ticket.”
Going back to her dough, she positioned the cutter and pressed it down. “So, here I am, Chino… standing in the kitchen, in an apron, making heart shaped cookies.” She reviewed her work, removing the heart and placing in on the already buttered baking pan. “And I’m loving every minute of it. What’s up with that?”
“What’s up with that?” Kerry repeated, in a much softer voice. “I don’t think it’s my biological clock ticking, do you, Chino?”
Chino whined and laid down, resting her chin on Kerry’s foot.
“No, me either.” Kerry chuckled. “You know what I think it is? I think it’s just that I have so much love inside me for your mommy, that its always looking for a way to come out, and I guess this is one of the ways.” She finished arranging her cookies and checked the oven, opening the door and sliding the tray inside. “You think your mommy knows that?”
Something in the look she’d seen in Dar’s eyes that morning when they’d woken up together had bothered her. She almost thought she’d imagined it – but the more she thought about it the more she knew she hadn’t, and it reminded her of the early days of their relationship when she’d sometimes catch a hint of what could almost be fear lurking in those pale baby blues.
She knew where it had come from. Kerry’s eyes narrowed a little, as she rolled a ball of cookie dough between her fingers. It had come from that number one whore bitch Shari, who Kerry would have dearly loved to punch right in the nose.
“Oh yeah.” She let out a half laugh. “That’d look great on Tech TV, Ker. You taking down a rival in a catfight in the middle of the convention floor.” Kerry tossed the cookie dough ball at Chino’s nose. The Labrador snapped it out of mid air and swallowed it, looking up hopefully for more. “Eh. Probably been the best ratings they’d had all year. No more, you little pig dog.”
The dog sighed, warming Kerry’s leg. With a smile, Kerry sat down on the floor next to her, and started petting her soft fur. She leaned back against the counter and savored a moment of quiet satisfaction, glad as well that her cramps had finally eased off and gone completely away.
Part of that was due to a new discovery of Dar’s. Kerry laid her hand on her belly, feeling the residual heat from a small packet stuck to the outside of her underwear. It was like a portable heating pad, about four inches by two, right where the warmth could do the most good.
Just too cool. Kerry marveled. And it had lasted over twelve hours. “Technology’s a fantastic thing, Chi. You hear all those people say how the good old days used to be? Not me. Give me the cutting edge any time.” With a stifled yawn, she got up and wandered into the living room, going over to the sliding glass doors to peer out at the moon spattered sea.
Dar would be fine. Kerry leaned against the glass, watching her breath fog it slightly. She just need a few extra reminders of how much their relationship meant to both of them, and just how wrong Shari had been all those years ago about everything she’d said to Dar.
Bitch. Kerry felt her own hands tense. “God, I hate her.” She whispered, feeling the passion in the words. “She better stay home this time, Chino. Stay the hell in Orange County and away from Miami if she knows what’s good for her.”
“Grrr.” Chino spotted something outside and let out a low growl.
“What is it, Chi?” Kerry shaded her eyes and looked, but all she could see was the moon reflecting off the sea, and a few palm fronds waving. “Or were you agreeing with me?” She lifted her head as the delicate scent of baking cookies wafted in from the kitchen. “Oo.. you smell that, girl? Let’s go see how they’re doing.”
Chino followed her into the kitchen, but two steps inside the dog stopped and turned, frisking back out into the living room.
Kerry just grinned and kept going, peeking inside the stove as she kept one ear cocked for sounds from the other room. She heard the canine yodel of greeting, and only just prevented herself from repeating it. Then she figured what the heck, and did anyway, lifting her voice up in a weird counterpoint to Chino’s. “AwwwrrrooooO!!!!!”
“What in the hell is that?” Dar answered, easing into the kitchen with a blond Labrador glued to her knee. “Is there a duck dying in here?” She’d taken her jacket off, and untucked her silk shirt, and now she sidled up behind Kerry and rested her chin on Kerry’s shoulder, peering through the tinted glass of the oven.
“Quack.” Kerry finished checking the cookie’s progress. Then she turned around and faced Dar. Before her partner could step back, she lifted her hands up and gently caught her face, pulling it down to give her a nice, long, heartfelt kiss. “But I bet ducks don’t do that.”
“Not nearly as well as you do.” Dar moved closer and slid her arms around Kerry. “Hi.”
Kerry hugged her. “Hey, sweetie. Glad you’re here.” She felt Dar’s chest move suddenly as she inhaled, and tightened her grip instinctively. “Eerrf. Chino and I were just talking about you.”
Now Dar’s body jerked again, for a different reason as a chuckle emerged. “Oh yeah? What’d she have to say about me?” She rested her forearms on Kerry’s shoulders as they parted and looked at each other. “Was she complaining about my CD’s again?”
“She was bitching that you were late, and she had to wait to get some cookies.” Kerry let her hands rest casually on Dar’s hips. “That didn’t take long.”
“I said a half hour.” Dar glanced at the kitchen clock. “So what have you been up to, besides baking?” She reached up and ruffled Kerry’s hair. “I like the snips.” Her voice warmed with approval. “This looks really cute on you.”
“Got my car done, got my hair done, got our laundry done, paid the bills…” Kerry ticked off her accomplishments. “Wrote you a poem.” She finished, a trifle shyly, still unsure of her skills in that particular arena. “It’s been a good day.”
Poem? Dar felt a faint flush of surprised pleasure. Kerry had written some poems she’d shown her, sure – one had even been about her. “What kind of poem?” She didn’t recall any that had been written for her, however, and the thought intrigued her.
Distracted her, in fact, from the disturbing revelations in the bar.
Kerry produced a grin. “Well, let’s get our cookies and milk, and you can come read it. Decide for yourself what kind of poem it is.” She tugged open the oven door and put a mitt on her hand, then pulled the tray out and set it on wooden holders she’d put earlier on the counter. “Mm.”
Dar peered over her shoulder with deep interest. “Mm, is right.” She sniffed delicately. “Are those hearts?”
Kerry nodded, gently easing them free of their baking sheet with a wafer thin spatula and putting them on a wire rack to cool. “Yep, they sure are.” She felt Dar’s warm breath on her ear and half turned, pressing her cheek against her partner’s. “Just wanted to make sure you knew where those little chocolate chips came from.”
“It’s too warm for it to be my birthday.” Dar slid both arms around Kerry’s body and simply held her, watching the cookies make their slow progress. “So why does it feel like it?”
Kerry carefully selected one of the smaller specimens and broke it in half, handing a chunk almost dripping with chocolate over her shoulder. “No reason.” She took a careful bite, making an approving noise at the taste. “We should let these cool.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Dar sucked in air to cool her stinging tongue. “You bring the rack, I’ll get a jug of milk. Meet you on the couch.”
Kerry was more than glad to oblige. She followed Dar into the living room, nearly tripping over a wildly tail wagging Chino and settled into the soft leather of the couch.
Dar dropped off the milk, but kept going towards the bedroom, unbuttoning her shirt as ducked through the door. “I’m going to take off this damn suit and put on something more comfortable.”
“Naked works.” Kerry commented, grinning when she heard the dry chuckle from the next room. “I like that suit on you, by the way. I think it really looks good.” She selected a channel idly, turning the sound down as Dar returned in a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top. “On second thought, I like that outfit better.”
Dar eased onto the couch, laying down on her side and extending her long legs along the leather surface. “Glad you had a better day than I did.” She said. “I’m gonna have to go up to New York tomorrow night. That damn project is turning out to be a bigger hog than they admitted to at first.”
“Boo hiss.” Kerry patted her thigh, smiling as Dar inched over and settled her head on the spot. “Just overnight?” She riffled her fingers through the dark, soft hair now spilling over her bare leg.
“Yeah, I’ll be back Wednesday, probably late.”
Kerry picked up a cookie and broke it in half. “Okay, since I’ll be downtown for that meeting, why don’t I plan on picking you up at the airport then? We can do D and B’s at the Dolphin for dinner.”
“Mm.” Dar made an agreeable noise, accepting her half of the cookie and taking a bite of it. “Listen. Stacy and Rhonda told me they overheard our two friends fighting in a bar after the trade show.”
“They get pictures?”
“No.” Dar rolled over and looked up at Kerry, watching the expression shift subtly on her face. “Ker, this wasn’t a joke.”
“I don’t give a poot.” Kerry said. “You know what I decided tonight? I decided they, and especially that bitch Shari had better the hell stay out of my way on this bid.”
Dar blinked at her.
“I’m serious. I’ve had it with them. If they start up with me at that meeting on Wednesday, you’ll be coming home to post my bail that night. I swear, Dar. I’m not going to put up with any shit from them anymore.”
Dar gazed steadily at her. “Shari thinks she’s got something on you that’ll make you cave in to them.”
Kerry’s eyebrows almost hit the popcorn ceiling. “On me?”
“Me?” The blond woman pointed a thumb at herself. “What in the hell do they think they can come up with on me that half the English speaking world hasn’t seen for themselves on television or read in the Washington Post? That I’m gay? That I’m Republican? That I’m a budding hedonist? What?”
Dar shrugged. “I dunno, sweetheart. It didn’t make a lick of sense to me when I heard it. I think she’s just pissing lemonade.”
“I’m going to make some lemonade and shove the pits right up her..” Kerry exhaled. “Oo.. Dar, sending me to this meeting may not be a good idea.” She said. “I could lose us the bid right up front if they tick me off.”
“Then you do.” Dar replied. “Don’t sweat it, Ker. Just go, listen, and blow them off if they come near you.” She took another cookie from the rack and split it, handing Kerry her share.
Kerry ate the cookie slowly. “Are you telling me to just ignore them? Leave them alone?”
Dar nodded. “Don’t let them get to you.”
The pale blond brows contracted. “Paladar, do you find it just a little ironic that you are saying that to me ? After what we just went through with them? Are you going to take your own advice on that too?”
“I tell you what – I’ll blow them off if you will. You stop letting what that whore bitch did to you chew you up inside, and I’ll treat them like they were old buddies. Deal?” Kerry heard a sharper note in her voice than she’d really intended, and saw the flicker in Dar’s eyes just before her partner looked briefly away. “Because I hate her so much on your behalf, it’s the only way I could deal with it, Dar.” She added, in a gentler tone.
Dar looked back up. “I don’t want you hating people on my behalf.”
A sigh. “Got milk?”
Kerry leaned over and gave her a chocolate tainted kiss instead. “Want to hear my poem?” She whispered. “Screw them. What ever’s going to happen, will happen.”
Dar eased her misgivings out of her mind, and set them aside for now. In one sense, Kerry was right. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen. They would just have to deal with it all one step at a time when it did. “Poem me, and pass the milk. You’re right. Screw em.”
Kerry’s face creased into a happy grin, as she reached over to the table for her writing pad. “You got it, partner. You got it.” She leaned over near Dar’s ear. “Know what she must have found out about me?”
Kerry whispered something, and nearly ended up with cookies all over her chest as Dar convulsed with laughter, and she chuckled evilly right along with her.
Kerry slung her sweat dampened towel around her neck, and inched her way out of the slim boxing gloves encasing her hands. She was still breathing a little hard from the end of her sparring lesson, and she shook her head with a tiny jerk to clear a few droplets of perspiration out of her eyes.
“Nice moves, Ker.” Her sparring partner Rod gave her a light clout on the shoulder as he moved past. “Glad you’re back.”
‘Thanks.” Kerry grinned at him. “That was fun.”
“Eh.” The woman at the locker next to hers gave her a wry look, examining a large purple bruise across the back of one hand. “Mostly fun. How are you, Kerry? We missed you and the Taz last week.”
The Taz. Kerry wrinkled her nose up at the nickname her partner had picked up from their kickboxing classmates. “We were up in Orlando.” She explained. “Now, Dar’s up in New York for a few days. She was sorry she was going to miss tonight too. She likes it.”
“Well, we like it when you’re here to occupy her.” The woman grinned at Kerry. “Vacation?”
“Nah. A convention.” Kerry stripped off her other glove and tossed it into her gear locker. Her head protector followed it, and the leather belt that protected her mid-section. “Phew… it’s hot in here today.” She wiped her face off with a corner of her towel, then grabbed her clothing bag. “I’m going to go shower off. I feel grungier than an old dishrag.”
“Hey.” Rod poked his head around the door of her locker. “We’re doing beer and wings across the street. You up for it?”
Kerry only hesitated an instant before she nodded. “Sure. Cold beer sounds really good right now.” She agreed. “See you over there? You too, Sal?”
“Right on.” The woman responded readily. “Tom’s got his new bike, and he’s dying to show it off. But I’m with Kerry – shower first.”
“So you can sit in the bar and sweat?” Rod laughed. “You girls are so…so…”
“Girly?” Kerry supplied, with a grin. “If that means we feel good and don’t stink, thanks!” She flicked him with her towel and headed for the women’s shower room at the gym with Sally at her heels. This class was full of new people, and she and Dar had made friends with quite a few of them.
Kerry liked them. They were a mixture of professionals and working class, mostly laid back, with a diverse range of interests including diving and bikes, two of her own current fascinations. The women were into fitness, but not aerobics, and the guys were more relaxed and laid back than the martial artists that tended to populate the more traditional classes.
Cool group. They accepted her and Dar with amiable good nature even after their relationship had become evident and most of them held a healthy respect for Dar’s fighting skills. “Ugh.” Kerry stripped out of her baggy pants and tshirt, then stepped under the shower with a feeling of relief.
The water was delightfully luke-warm, and she let it course over her for a minute before she squeezed out a handful of soap from the wall dispenser and scrubbed her skin with it. “So what did we miss last week?” She asked Sally, who had joined her in the next shower cubicle. The spaces were separated by half walls, to give a modicum of privacy.
“John just went over high kicks again.” Sally responded. “He was in a bad mood. I think he lost big in that tourney he entered last weekend. You know how he gets.”
“Ah.” Kerry lathered her hair quickly and rinsed it, feeling one hundred percent better already. Her muscles were a little sore, and she was a little tired from the session, but she’d completed the rounds without taking any hard blows, and was pretty satisfied with herself all in all. “Yeah, he’s a little touchy about that, I know. Especially when his buddies show up here to watch the class.”
“Uh huh.” Sally said. “Rod thinks he picks the wimpiest student he has to spar with when they’re here.. you notice he *never* picks Taz.”
Kerry chuckled wryly. “Well, Dar’s not exactly a novice, and he knows it.” She explained, rinsing off one last time and grabbing her towel. “She teaches a class at our other gym near work. We’re just on break from that right now, and she wanted to learn something new.”
“Yeah, me too.” Sally admitted frankly, as she joined Kerry in dressing. “I got really tired of spinning. You ever try that?”
“Nuh huh.” Kerry pulled on her shorts and buttoned them, then donned a clean t-shirt from her bag. “The idea of riding and riding and riding and getting nowhere just isn’t my style.” She ran her brush through her hair, settling her newly cut locks into place. “I mean… we run every morning. We could get a treadmill and do it in the condo, in the nice air conditioning, but we don’t.”
Sally followed her out of the locker room and across the somewhat worn lobby of the boxing club they had their class in. “I kinda see what you mean… but sometimes it’s a lot safer to run on the treadmill in here, then on the streets, y’know?”
No, that was true. Kerry admitted, as they left the club and headed across the street to the small pub already leaking faint sounds of music into the humid air. It wasn’t something she and Dar had to worry about, and sometimes she did tend to forget not everyone lived on a private island where that kind of crime just didn’t exist.
Rod and three others from the class joined them as they approached, already having claimed a table outside under the ficus tree. The doors to the pub were wide open, as were the windows, since the place hadn’t had air conditioning any time Kerry had ever been by there.
Outside was cooler, even in the dead of summer. She sat down in one of the worn, wooden chairs and leaned back as the group settled in under the string of tacky colored globe lights hanging from the tree. The place smelled of the distinctive scent of vegetation all around, of fried food and spices, and Kerry considered it just about the perfect neighborhood dive she’d ever seen. There was even a very worn dart board nailed to the ficus, and for a quarter you could get three cracked darts to throw at it.
“Hey, honey!” Their regular waitress scooted over on spotting them, stopping in front of Kerry. “Usual?”
Kerry nodded, and stretched her legs out as the rest of the group made their orders. It had just gotten dark, and there was just enough breeze to keep the night from being uncomfortable. The waitress had just left when the rumbling pop of a motorcycle engine interrupted the night, and the roar grew as it came closer. “Ah.. guess that’s Tom.”
“You guessed it.” Rod agreed, hitching his knee up and slinging one long leg over the chair arm. He was tall and lanky, dark haired and relatively good looking in an understated kind of way. “Big ol Harley, and damn he wants everyone to know about it.”
Kerry snorted and shook her head.
The rider and bike arrived then, the noise precluding any further conversation until Tom turned the engine off and parked the big cycle, displaying it to various noises of appreciation. “Nice, huh?”
“Prettier than you are.” Rod called out, with a chortle. “Sure you can handle something that nice?”
“Kiss my ass, butthead.” Tom replied with a grin. “If you’re nice, I might let you touch it.” He half turned and glanced back at Kerry. “Whatcha think, Kerry? Nice, huh?” He indicated the bike, which was a monster in black and chrome with a custom painted gas tank full of incongruous tropical fish.
“Very.” Kerry agreed readily. “I like the soft tail. You didn’t opt for a VRSC?”
Tom walked over and sat down next to her, clasping his hands together. “Oh.. I think I’m in love with you. A girl who speaks my language.” He grinned at her. “You have one?”
“Not quite.” Kerry accepted her mug of ice cold draft beer and sipped it. “We were going for one. Went into the show room, and the guy there told Dar she’d have to buy what he was willing to sell her.” She licked her lips and sighed. “One ‘kiss my ass’ later, we headed over to the Honda dealership and the rest is history. I like my Shadow, though. It’s nice.”
The group laughed. Tom groaned, and slapped his head. “Kerry… Kerry… Kerry.. how could you?” He moaned. “Why didn’t you try a different dealership? I got mine in Daytona during bike week… it was like a religious experience.”
Kerry took a lazy swallow of her amber colored beer and shrugged one shoulder. “We use it down by the cabin in the keys. If we kept a Harley in the shed, we’d spend half our time writing police reports on it. So, it worked out for us. Maybe my next one’ll be a hog.”
Tom waggled his eyebrows at her. “Wanna go for a ride after we eat?”
“Sure.” Kerry agreed. “As long as you don’t have chili again.”
The gang laughed again, and Rod threw a corn chip at his buddy. “She gotcha.”
“Damn it, I like chili!” Tom whined. “Okay, here, at least get a picture of me with a good looking girl on my bike. I gotta have something to show the guys.” He gave Kerry a pleading look. “You mind?”
With a chuckle, Kerry set her beer down and got up, following Tom over to the slick machine and admiring it’s lines as she hopped up and gingerly settled herself on the back part of the seat. “Hm.”
Tom got on in front of her, and did a muscle dude pose, flexing his bicep for Kerry’s admiration. Obligingly, she leaned against him and pointed at the muscle, raising her eyebrows for the camera. “Psst.” She whispered. “I think Dar’s are sexier.”
Tom gave her a look over his shoulder. He was blond and football player style buff, and had a crew cut that was almost fifties in it’s rigor. “Gee, thanks Ker.” He muttered. “You really know how to make a guy feel great.”
Kerry chuckled, and slid off the bike now that the flashes had stopped. She headed for the table, sidestepping the outstretched feet and reclaiming her chair with a sigh.
“Okay, okay.” Tom finally joined them, after he carefully made sure his new bike wasn’t going to fall over onto the sidewalk. “This rounds’ on me, since I don’t have to start paying on this thing for three months.”
Whistles all round greeted his speech.
Kerry relaxed, looking forward to her cheeseburger with a sense of decadent pleasure. She felt sort of bad for Dar stuck in her hotel up in New York, but she was glad to get the chance to decompress before her scheduled meeting with Quest the next day.
She let her eyes wander as the group chattered about Tom’s new bike, and found her gaze abruptly arrested by the sight of an unwelcome but familiar face. At the phone booth right in front of the dive, Shari was standing ostensibly making a call. “Oh… what are the odds of this being a coincidence?” She tensed, waiting for the confrontation she was sure would happen, but Shari finished her call, and turned and walked away without a backward glance.
“Huh.” Kerry exhaled. “Hm. Maybe it was.”
“Here’s to my bike!” Tom said, raising his glass and extending it. “And to a bunch of good buddies!” He clinked his mug to theirs. “Just sorry Taz isn’t here to see it.”
Kerry tilted her mug towards him. “I’ll drink to that sentiment. Me too.”
Me too, she repeated silently, watching the now empty sidewalk with pensive eyes.
Dar trudged into her hotel room, tossing her jacket over the nearby chair and kicking out of her formal shoes even before she had the door properly closed. “Know what?” She addressed the empty room. “I’m about ready to go work someplace I can wear jeans every damn day.”
She was tired, and aggravated, and here she was a near midnight after a very long, stressful day. “Stupid sons of bitches.” She cursed, giving her room a glare. “I come all the way up here and the entire pack of jackasses don’t have the start of their act together. Pain my ass, and a waste of my time.”
Their client’s team had just fallen apart trying to answer her questions. Everything she asked was either deferred to their VP Ops who was out of town, or met with an anxious, wide eyed stare of incomprehension.
Their CIO had been pretty much mortified, and offered to take Dar out to dinner to make up for the chaos. He’d turned out to be a vegetarian.
Dar had forced him into a steakhouse, sending a brief mental apology to her mother as she ordered hers rare and spent a desultory couple of hours making polite conversation about nothing significant at all while a pounding ache in her head slowly grew into what she suspected was the beginning of a migraine.
Aggravated wasn’t the word for what she was. Disgusted, hurting, sick to her stomach, and just hellfire damned annoyed didn’t even come close either.
With a sigh, she started unbuttoning the sleeves on her shirt, slowing as she approached the small table in the reasonably elegant room and spotted a basket on top of it. She didn’t remember it being there earlier when she’d thrown her luggage into the room before heading for the client, but then the bottle of champagne resting with distinguished chilliness nearby hadn’t been either. “Hm. What have we here?”
She glanced at the tag on the champagne. “Forget it, Stewie. You’ll be lucky if I leave you an extra set of tin cans tomorrow.” Her lip curled slightly at the sight of her erstwhile dining companion’s name. “You can keep your damn fake French bubbly.”
She tossed the card on to the table and watched it slide off the polished surface and waft towards the carpet with a supremely disinterested shrug.
Now, the basket. Gift from the management? Dar circled the table and cautiously investigated the unexpected offering. The basket was a nice, wicker one, with a top. She opened the top and peered inside, a smile appearing on her face when the first thing she saw was a packet of good hot chocolate. “So.” She sat down and upturned the basket, spilling out it’s contents.
Brownies. Cookies. The hot chocolate. Truffles. Dar poked her finger among them and stopped at the last item – a frilly little gauze bag filled with Hersey’s kisses. She picked it up and cupped it in her hand, gazing at the silver wrapped treats with eyes that suddenly, unexpectedly, stung.
There was a card attached to the wicker. Dar opened it, already knowing what she’d find inside Hope you’re looking at this as you finish up business early and are watching the sun set over Manhattan. But I bet you ain’t. Love, Kerry
“Bet you’re right.” Dar answered, in a husky voice. “Wish to hell you were in that basket.”
The quiet of the room settled around her as she sat there, her head resting on one hand and a bag of kisses cradled in the other. Finally she sighed and straightened up, opening the net and retrieving one of the candies. “C’mon, Dar. Get a grip. She can use a vacation from you with all this insecurity crap you’ve been pulling the last week.” With a morose look, she popped a kiss into her mouth and chewed it.
Here, alone in her hotel room, she could just lean back and be as depressed as she wanted to.
Her eyes shifted. But it was hard to do that, when she was practically up to her earlobes in thoughtful presents from her beloved partner whose warm smile seemed to reflect off the packaging scattered over the table in front of her.
Even if it was midnight, and she had a migraine. Dar pulled the other chair over and put her feet up on it, leaning back as she consumed more of the kisses. Lacking milk, she reached over and snagged the bottle of champagne, untwisting it’s top and popping it’s cork in a smooth motion. She poured herself a glass and took a sip, letting her head rest against the back of the chair as she thought about Kerry.
Slowly, the tension eased from her shoulders. She knew Kerry was trying her hardest to be supportive, she only had to unfold the piece of paper in her wallet and reread yesterday’s poem to see that. Chocolate chip cookies, her stuff all taken care of.. this… Dar exhaled, acknowledging the deep emotion in her guts the thought triggered in her.
Kerry cared so much about her. It was almost like she could feel her partner’s presence, and if she closed her eyes, she could almost sense a pair of ghostly hands on her shoulders and the faint brush of Kerry’s lips on the top of her head.
Tears came again, and Dar rested her head on her hand, letting her fingers slide forward to cover her eyes. “God damn it.” She cursed at herself softly. “Would you fucking snap out of this already?”
It was ludicrous. It was frustrating. Dar wanted to just slap herself for feeling the way she did, for what she considered such a stupid reason.
For no reason, really. So what if she’d had to tangle with Shari? She’d gotten exactly what she wanted from the trade show, and they’d won, damn it! So what the hell was wrong with her??
I need to kick myself in the ass.
Disgusted, she shoved herself to her feet and went to her window, brushing aside the curtains to lean against the glass and stare out at the city. Behind the thick glass, the sounds were muted, and the garish lights and looming buildings seemed alien beyond their usual to her.
She’d never liked New York. The city had always seemed big, impersonal, nasty and dirty to her, without any of the exciting energy and pulse she’d heard its residents boast of. The streets were narrow, the buildings were overbearing and in some places dirty, and in the heat of the summer, the place stank to high heaven.
Exciting? Dar had driven past the financial district earlier, as the cabby proudly pointed out Wall Street to her. Peering down the rows of buildings, it had appeared nothing more than a huge, impersonal canyon about as picturesque as a bunch of shoeboxes set on end.
The change of subject was helping. Dar took several deep breaths, reassured by the order that seemed to be returning to her thoughts.
She spotted a man walking a dog across the street, and focused on that. He was a street person, she realized, wearing ragged clothing and carrying probably all his possessions on his back. Along side him a mixed breed sheperd dog trotted, his tail wagging proudly. He had a kerchief around his neck that probably cost as much as he owner’s shirt, and as Dar watched them move past and studied the man’s lifted head and jaunty step, she decided she deserved nothing but a first class butt kicking rather than chocolate baskets and pretty poems.
“Okay, Paladar.” She addressed herself, moving back from the window and starting again to unbutton her sleeves. “That’s enough. You’re over it. Or else.”
She slid her shirt off and tossed it over the chair with her jacket, sliding out of her skirt as she walked over to where her suitcase was resting, it’s top neatly opened. She removed a pair of shorts and a tshirt from it, changing into them and breathing in the scent of home as the soft folds settled over her.
“That’s better.” She took her sundry kit from the overnight bag and went into the bathroom, setting it onto the sink and removing her toothbrush and paste from it. She glanced at the paste and half chuckled, recognizing the flavor. “Grape.” She held the paste up. “Thanks, Ker.”
Her headache was easing a little, and to further that end, she swallowed a few Advil after she finished brushing her teeth.
Wandering back into the main room she sat down on the bed, flipping the television on more to provide some background noise than anything else. She found CNN and left it going, then she stretched out along the bed, laying down flat and watching the picture sideways.
Some of the CNN anchors, she’d discovered, looked better that way, and she wasn’t tempted to try and read the scrolling marquee across the bottom of the screen. The news, however, always seemed to be the same thing. Trouble in the Middle East, typhoons in Tokyo, political wrangling in the US. Never changed.
Dar checked her watch, hesitantly wondering if it was too late to call home. The thought was only barely articulated when her cell phone, resting on the nightstand, went off with a low, rumbling buzz.
She rolled over a few times to get to the head of the bed, and grabbed the phone, glancing at the caller id as she flipped it open. “Hi.”
Dar realized as she listened that there was something about Kerry’s voice that did something to her when she heard it. It was a viscereal reaction – she felt her body relax onto the bed, and the tension across her shoulders eased almost like magic. “Ahhh… Kerrison. Now that’s a sound for sore ears.”
Kerry laughed. “Did I wake you up?” She said. “I’m sorry if I did… I just got home and I just wanted to make sure you got there okay and everything was going fine.”
Dar’s eyebrows lifted. “You just got home?” She queried.
“Yeah.” Kerry sounded a trifle abashed. “We went to the pub after class and talked trash for a few hours. Tom got his new bike.” She cleared her throat. “And.. I.. um… did something I think you’re going to kill me for.”
Dar blinked, her eyes searching the arched ceiling. “You did?”
“Yeeahhh… but I’d rather tell you about it in person.”
Dar’s brow furrowed. Kerry didn’t sound really worried about it, but… “You know I hate surprises.”
A soft, wry chuckle. “Honey, I know that. But humor me. Please?”
The tone reassured her. “Okay.” Dar sighed. “It’s been a bitch of a day. I’m torked.” She complained. “I hate New York.”
“Wish I was there.” Kerry admitted. “Rather than going to that damn meeting tomorrow. At least I have picking you up to look forward to.”
It made her smile, for a number of reasons. “Hey. Thanks for the basket.” She said. “It was nice to come in to after a lousy night.”
“Aww.” Kerry crooned softly. “Glad to hear that. How’s the sizing going? Did you straighten out what they need?”
Dar sighed. “No. They weren’t ready for me today. I’m going to have to really push tomorrow to get out of here on time. Maybe I should just take the morning flight out and forget about it.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Listen, just do what you can, and get on the plane. It’ll work out.” Kerry said. “At least they put you up in a nice place.”
Dar glanced around. “Yeah.” She shrugged. “It’s okay, but it’s lacking an amenity.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
A low chuckle came through the phone. “See you tomorrow night, sweetheart. Try to take it easy, huh?”
“You too.” Dar smiled. “Night. Love you.”
“Love you too. G’night.”
Dar folded the phone shut and put it on her chest. Now what, she wondered, could Kerry have done?
That Dar would kill her for?
It was going to be a long twenty four hours.
The mid-morning sun was pouring with liquid ferver across the carpet, it’s edge creeping closer and closer to the desk set slightly offset, and at an angle to the door.
Its occupant looked up and studied it, as a puff of dust mingled with the molten light and reflected a dull glitter as the particles drifted towards the floor. “Memo. Get the cleaning crew in here with the vacuum twice a week.” Kerry shook her head and scribbled a note. “No wonder I’ve been sneezing.”
A buzz. “Hey, Kerry, I need a favor.”
Kerry put her cup down and regarded her phone warily. “Sure, Mark. What is it?” She asked, shifting a little and wincing in mild discomfort. “You’re set to come with me to the meeting, right?”
“I sure am, but um.. “ Mark cleared his throat. “Listen, I had to take one of my bikes into the shop last week and it’s ready. Can I catch a ride with you to the meeting, and you drop me off to pick it up after we’re done? If I wait till after we get back, they’ll be closed.”
“Oh, sure.” Kerry agreed readily. “No problem. You about ready to leave?”
“Yep.” Mark said. “Just putting my gear in the backpack. I’ve got the scanners and the drawing pad with me, but I gotta tell you, boss.. I ain’t big D when it comes to this stuff.”
“Is anyone?” Kerry smiled, tilting her head and glancing at the picture on her desk.
“Well.. you sure you don’t want one of the engineers to tag along?”
“Not for this session.” Kerry said. “For one thing, it’s just an intro. For another, I want someone with me who saw the whole circus in Orlando, and for a third thing, you know the political side of this. An engineer won’t.”
“Ppphhh…. Okay.” Mark responded. “Meet you downstairs?”
“Ten minutes.” Kerry agreed, releasing the line. She went back to her mail, clicking on the next in a succession of minor catastrophes. She sipped her herbal tea while she reviewed the note, shifting her gaze to one side briefly as she tried to recall the location of a resource which had probably been ancient when Dar had joined the company.
“Oh, hell.” She picked up her pda and tapped the screen, typing in a short message. She hit send and waited, twirling the stylus in her fingers until she saw the light of an incoming reply flash. A smile creased her face, and she put the pda down so she could type something into her pc’s message reply, then sent it on it’s way before she picked her pad back up. Thanks… what are you doing?
Having a damn boring breakfast. What are you doing?
Kerry grinned. Getting ready to go to my meeting. I’m taking Mark.
Good choice. Orange juice sucks here.
“Oh, sure. Drink it there, but not for me, huh?” Kerry scolded her pda. Are you having grits?
!!!! Grits in Manhattan? You want me not to come back?
Oh, never. Kerry’s thumb stroked the screen lightly. Wish you were here right now.
The reply took a little longer than before. Me, too.
Kerry exhaled. “Boy, what is it with us the past few days?” She murmured, sensing the emotion both in herself and in the responses she was getting. Well, I’ll be waiting at the airport tonight, so you better not be late coming back from that crazy apple.
Ugh. I’ll be there, Ker, but if these jackasses don’t get their act together, I might have to stay over another night.
“Ugh is right.” Kerry frowned. Ew.
Kerry tapped her stylus against the screen thoughtfully. She knew Dar would avoid sticking around in New York if it was humanly possible, but she also knew her partner took her job responsibilities very seriously and if she said she had to stay, she did. Let me know, okay? I hope you don’t have to stay.
You’ll be the first to know. I am going to dump this bad omelette and go terrorize people. Good luck with the meeting.
Yeah. You too. Talk to you later, Dixiecup.
(grin) Later, Yankee.
The exchange made her feel pleasantly warm and fuzzy inside, though the lingering worry about Dar’s state of mind was still there, lurking in the background. So far this morning, at least, her lover sounded her usual feisty self.
However. Kerry scribbled a brief paragraph onto the screen, reviewed it, then hit send, waiting expectantly until she saw the reply.
Saucy little wench. Say that again tonight.
“Heh. I will.” Kerry put the pda down and with a final glance at her own monitor, she set her trackball aside and stood up, carefully shrugging on her metallic bronze colored jacket over the gold silk shirt she’d chosen that morning.
It was a bit flashier than she usually preferred, but Kerry hadn’t been brought up in a political rats nest for nothing. She knew how to dress to make an impact, and at this meeting, when she’d be the principal in stead of acting as Dar’s trusted right hand, she had a bit of a different image to present.
She finished her tea, then slid the strap of her laptop case over her right shoulder and headed for the door, pausing briefly to check her reflection in the small mirror over the credenza.
It was a relatively sophisticated image that looked back at her. The new haircut framed her face a little differently, lengthening it just a touch, she thought. After a fluff of her bangs, she gave her image a grudging nod, then continued out the door. “Okay, Mayte. I’m outta here.”
Her assistant looked up from her work. “Oh, Ms. Kerry. You look so pretty today.” She exclaimed. “What a nice jacket!’
Not immune to flattery by any means, Kerry paused and grinned, showing off her outfit. “Like it? Dar said I needed something a little snazzier the last time we went shopping so…” She shrugged slightly.
“Did la jefa pick that one out? She has a good taste.” Mayte said.
“Yes, she did.” Kerry agreed. “And I like to think she does.” She winked at Mayte. “I’m going to be offsite all afternoon if anyone’s looking for me. I’ll be at the Intercontinental at a prospective new business meeting.”
“Si.” Mayte nodded. “Ms. Mariana called for the employee meeting, and she said she would move it to next week. She is going to be off tomorrow for her birthday.”
“Oh, yikes.” Kerry’s eyes widened. “How did we miss that? Can we get a cake in for Friday? Something big and decorated really crazy?” She made a mental note to remind Dar, also, who probably would eschew a card but possibly not something far more bizarre, like the spiny cactus she’d gotten Duks for his birthday last time.
“We can do that, sure.” Mayte agreed confidently. “I will take care of it, Ms. Kerry. No problem.”
With a wave of her fingers, Kerry slipped out the front entrance of her office and headed for the elevators. She felt a little nervous, both from the knowledge that their rivals would be there waiting for her and of the bid process itself.
That, she knew down pat. She’d gone on dozens of new business bids, most as Dar’s second, but occasionally as the primary contact when her partner was occupied elsewhere. While her usual job was to come in after the contract had closed and make it all happen, she knew the delicate casting landing the deals took.
Dar was, in the terms of business, a closer. She didn’t usually do the initial leg work, she left that to the sales directors and regional managers who worked with the new accounts. Her job was to come in when the money talk got tough and lay down the bottom line of what they’d accept on a contract, and what they wouldn’t.
Her word was law, even over the highest sales executives, and everyone knew only Alastair could, or would, overrule her and he never had.
Kerry was more than aware of that going into any new bid. She felt responsible for doing her job, of course, but she was also very conscious of being Dar’s personal and professional representative. She knew people had expectations of her because of that, and she focused intently on living up to or surpassing them.
It was easy for people to think she did what she did because of her relationship with Dar. Kerry eyed the floor counter on the elevator, waiting for it to descend to the ground. People here at ILS no longer thought that – they were well aware of her capabilities.
But she knew she was going into a situation where their relationship was known better than they were, and so… Kerry sighed.
That got old real fast. She hoped she could just put Michelle in her place before the whole thing got started, and they could stick to business for a change. Maybe she’d get lucky, as Dar had said, and Telegenics would send engineers instead of highly annoying marketing heads whose faces made Kerry want to pick up a sledgehammer.
“Hey, boss.” Mark greeted her as the doors opened. He had a nerd backpack slung over one shoulder and was dressed in a more reserved, formal suit than was usual for him. “Ready?”
“Ready.” Kerry led the way towards the doors. “Let’s go make waves.”
Dar sat back in the thick, leather conference room chair and let her eyes travel around the table, just watching as the discussion moved from seat to seat. She rested her elbows on the chair arms and interlaced her fingers, trying the best she knew how not to either fidget or explode.
Clueless. “So what you’re telling me.” She finally interrupted the conversation. “Is that the developer can’t control the resources his program needs to operate.”
“Well..” The hitherto absent VP Ops, Jason Meyer sighed. “Not exactly, but there is a problem with the way the code’s written.”
“Problem?” Dar’s eyebrows lifted. “Given the test I just ran, they’ve offloaded all their processing to the servers, and it’s running everything across your WAN links to minimal clients. That’s not a problem, that’s a design disaster, Jason.”
“But, it’s an advantage, Dar.” Stewart Godson said. “Every time they make changes, they don’t have to alter the client, and it’s big bucks to us in savings. They just do what they need to do, and it’s taken care of.”
Dar exhaled silently. “I’m pretty conversant with the economies of the mainframe based distribution model, Stewart. It’s been around longer than I have.” She remarked dryly. “And I won’t even disagree with it, on a local scale. My support desk often wishes for the old days, when the users just flipped a switch and got a green screen. However.” She tapped her thumbs together. “GUI based applications are not meant to be pushed across the wide area network if you expect any kind of reasonable response time.”
“Did the vendor do any bandwidth testing?” Dar asked.
Godson shrugged. “He said he did, and that it had an acceptable result.”
Dar just looked at him for a long moment. “What did he define as acceptable?” She asked cautiously.
Godson looked at Meyer, who looked out the window. “Ah.. there’s a language barrier.” Stewart admitted. “The developer is German, and he doesn’t… um.. speak English.”
It was like being stuck in some bizarro Dilbert world. Dar rested her chin against her folded hands and found herself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. “Um.” She finally exhaled, with a slight shake of her head. “What exactly do you want me to do, here?”
The rest of the room’s occupants looked at each other, then focused on Godson. “Well, make it work.” He said. “You can, can’t you?”
“Sure.” Dar replied. “Got a million bucks for infrastructure upgrades?”
Godson actually gasped. “Of course not!”
Dar got up and started pacing, her body’s instincts finally getting the better of her. “Okay.” She lifted both hands and held them out slightly. “You have a new application, written by a firm over in Germany, which is designed to require four times the amount of bandwidth you currently have provisioned for.” She turned and leaned against the table. “So, gentlemen, you have one of three possible choices.” One hand lifted and indicated a finger. “You can scrap the application, make the developer fix it so it works right, or pay for expanding your network.”
Agitated, Godson got up. “Dar, we can’t do any of those. We’ve already paid for the program… it cost us over 10 million dollars! And it’s a good program.. it’ll raise our productivity ten fold!”
Dar just looked at him.
“But we don’t’ have a half a million dollars to put new circuits in. That’s why we called you. You’re our network administrator. Fix it!”
“Your network is based on a usage curve you signed off on.” Dar shot back. “We don’t have to fix it, Stewart. All we have to do is deliver what you paid for, which is the bandwidth you got right now.” She pointed at the CIO.
“Dar, put yourself in my shoes. What would you do?” The man replied, a hint of desperation in his voice.
“Fire myself.” Dar told him, bluntly.
The entire room save the two of them was frozen, everyone looking at their hands folded on the big wooden conference table. The morning sunlight entered into the room via a row of small windows near the top of the wall, but the effect was almost like that of a fishbowl.
Dar felt like one of her Siamese fighting fish, in fact. “So…”
“Can’t you do anything?” Godson muttered. “You guys are supposed to be the best.”
Patience. Dar took three or four breaths before she answered, mindful of the fact that she was, after all, at a client’s site. “Okay. I’ll fix it. Give me the damn source code.” She said. “But I’m warning you, I bill by the hour programming services and I ain’t cheap.”
Godson’s expression brightened, and he turned to his VP. “Can we do that?”
The VP shook his head. “No sir.” He cleared his throat. “We didn’t get the source code.”
Dar circled the table and sat down again in her seat. She propped her chin up on her fists and stared at the lot of them in patent disgust. “You paid ten million for an application and didn’t get source code?” She asked. “Please tell me you have a guarantee the developer will adapt the program to your specifications.”
Godson looked at Meyer.
“I think so.” The hapless VP Ops sighed. “I mean, yes…” He amended hastily as the tall, dark haired woman at the end of the table started to stand up. “Yes, they’ll rewrite whatever we need them to, only.. um.. they kind of have a little problem understanding what it is we need.”
Dar sat back down and leaned back, resuming her brooding posture. “You don’t have source code, you can’t communicate with your developer, you paid for something that doesn’t work on your existing infrastructure and you want me to fix it?”
“Well…” Godson leaned on his elbows. “I mean, who else can we go to, Dar? Really? Okay, so we maybe miscalculated a little, but this project is vital to the company. It has to happen.”
Dar remained quiet for a few minutes, considering her options. They were as few as Godson’s, really – she could walk out and tell them it was their problem not hers, but that meant a disaster for them, and they had a contract up for renewal next year with ILS.
She could force them to pay for new infrastructure, but the thought irked her given the fault really lay not with Godson or his clueless git of a VP Ops, but with the developer who sold them a bill of goods and was now probably laughing their German butts off over on the other side of the world. Also, they had a contract up for renewal, and Dar knew if she forced a half million dollars worth of gear down Godson’s throat, he’d just take it out of her when they were negotiating in twelve months.
On the other hand, Dar reasoned, if she could pull this off, and fix Godson’s problem, she had his cojones in a blender when it came time for him to sign the dotted line in those same twelve months. The only problem with that was…
Shit. “Okay.” Dar finally said. That meant she had to stay. “Call your developer, and have him put a coder on a plane before COB today. When he gets here, he’s gonna do exactly what I tell him to do, and I’ll see if that, plus what I can squeeze out of the pipes, will get your Frankenstein walking.”
Godson looked so relieved, Dar suspected he’d need to change his underwear before leaving the room.
“But…” Meyer spoke up nervously. “His people only speak German.”
“I speak German.” Dar informed him wryly. “Just don’t tell them that, okay? Not until the little bugger gets here and pretends he doesn’t know what’s going on.” She casually took out her pda and flipped the top open, frowning slightly as she started to scribble on it. After a second, she glanced up to see them all watching her. “Well?”
“Call him.” Godson slapped the table, pointing at his VP. “Get that guy here.. what’s his name, Gunther?”
“Hans.” Meyer opened his cell phone. “Okay, I’ll get him here. It’ll be tomorrow morning, though before he’s landed.”
“Fine.” Dar muttered as she scribbled. “Tell you what. I’ll bill THEM for having to teach the bastard how to write a decent application, how’s that?”
For the first time, Godson chuckled. “Listen, Dar – I know this was a bitch of a thing to dump on you. But you know we really had no choice. You were the best option we had to salvage this… this..”
“Clusterfuck is the technical term we use.” Dar leaned back, calculating the days. If the programmer got here tomorrow, and she was very, very lucky, maybe she’d get the hell out of here by the weekend.
Damn. She didn’t want to stay here that long. She wanted to get to the airport, get on a plane, and just…
Her PDA chirped, and she glanced down, to see a hand drawn sad face appear on the screen. Then a second message appeared, and she clicked on it.
I am sitting here in this freaking oatmeal colored hotel conference room having to listen to freaking Michelle Graver go on and on about how wonderful her company is and how they’re going to revolutionize Quest’s business, and you tell me that??? Augguuhhh!!!!
Dar half listened to Meyer’s conversation with the programmer as she answered.
Sorry, Ker. More complicated than I thought. I’ll talk to you later about it. Might get out of here Friday night.
She sent the message. The PDA beeped almost immediately.
“Dar?” Meyer called her name hesitantly, and waited for her to look up. “They can do it. The guy’ll be on a flight that gets in here eight AM tomorrow. How’s that?”
“Good.” Dar nodded, then went back to her messaging. I’m not happy about it either. I have to go get a couple spare pairs of clothes, and these bastards are going to cope with them being jeans and t-shirts. She tapped the stylus a few times. Sorry. Didn’t mean to stick you with the crap. Or the crappy jerks from TM.
“Here’s the game plan.” Dar looked up after she sent the last message. “We start with laying out the design changes tomorrow morning. I’ll give our German friend a framework to start with, then I’ll see what I can do with our existing infrastructure to maximize it. You may end up being a beta site.”
“Okay.” Godson nodded, a bit nervously. “Do we get a rebate for that?”
Dar stared at him, both eyebrows lifting.
“Just kidding.” The CIO smiled weakly.
The PDA beeped. Dar’s eyes dropped to it, scanning the message and gaining a faint twinkle as a ghost of a smile crossed her face.
I think Michelle and Shari got my silent mental message because they’ve been leaving me alone. My turn to lie like a fish is next, then we’re all supposed to have lunch. If I throw chicken Kiev at them, will you fire me so I can fly to NY and be with you instead?
“Hm?” Dar glanced across the table. “All set?” She realized the room had been watching her, and shrugged, holding up the PDA. “Telling my staff back in Miami not to expect me. I’ve got a couple of hot irons someone’s having to cover.” BRB She scrawled hastily, hitting send.
“Uh… yeah, we’re set.” Meyer agreed. “Is there… can we do anything until he gets here? Run some.. um.. tests, or…”
Dar shook her head. “No.” She battled the urge to ignore the room and chat with Kerry instead, finding it disturbingly difficult to keep her concentration on the clients in front of her. “Just tell everyone to relax, that you know it’s slower than molasses, but that it’s being worked on.” She stood up and slipped her pda into her pocket. “And now, gentlemen, I’m going to make arrangements for the rest of my responsibilities while I’m working on this little problem of yours. I’ll see you first thing in the morning.”
They hastily scrambled to their feet and started yammering thanks and goodbyes as she strode across the room, heading for the door and the dubious freedom of the Manhattan streets.
Outside, she was hit with a blast of hot air, and all the sounds of a busy city that jarred on her sensitive ears. She ducked between two buildings to escape the worst of the sun and opened her PDA, leaning against the brick of the building as she started to write. Finishing, she hit send, then looked around her. “So.” She unbuttoned the collar button on her shirt. “What in the hell do you do on a summer day in New York?”
With s sigh, she stepped out onto the sidewalk and began hunting for the proper spot to find a cab. “Guess I’ll be finding out.” She fixed an oncoming yellow victim with a direct stare, making eye contact with the driver and pulling him over to the curb apparently by the force of her own will. “Shit.” She sighed, opening the back door. “Now I won’t find out what she did for two whole damn days.”
Dar reviewed her options, once she’d changed out of her suit into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. There was, she had to grudgingly admit, a lot of things to do in New York, but most of them didn’t really appeal to her.
Of course, she could stay in her hotel room and catch up on email. She gave her laptop a dour look, leaning over to check the screen. It was dark with new lines, some of them with red exclamation points next to them.
Dar read the first two, then impatiently shoved the laptop away, deciding to postpone the task until later. The senders idea of urgent didn’t jive with hers, and she had other things she needed to be doing. With a grunt, she got up fro the bed and went to the small table, grabbing up one of the magazines there and dropping into the chair by the window.
Faintly, the sound of the city came through the glass. Dar turned her head and peered down at the street, but after a brief moment, she lost interest and went back to deciding what to do.
She flipped through the hotel guide restlessly, passing up coach rides in Central Park she’d have jumped at if Kerry was there, and the miles of shopping available to those who were in to that kind of thing. Fancy stores whose advertisements probably cost more than the average family made in a month. Dar’s nostrils twitched, as she reflected on the fact that despite all her resources, her tastes really hadn’t altered to high priced snootiness all that much.
Diamond bracelets? Well….
Dar occasionally enjoyed shopping, but usually when it was her and Kerry out for the day, getting stuff they needed, but also mixing it up with lunch, or a trip to the computer store, or something they both found interesting.
They liked a lot of the same things. Dar had always found that comforting. At first she’d wondered if Kerry was pretending to like things just because she wanted to make them seem more compatible, but after a while she realized they really did like the same stuff and in the cases when they didn’t, she’d learned to read Kerry’s facial expressions so accurately she knew in a single twitch of a muscle in her cheek what she was thinking.
That was so nice. Dar exhaled, and went back to her search for amusement. Maybe she could get Kerry a diamond bracelet. Would she like that?
She frowned, imagining Kerry’s reaction. Her partner liked pretty things, but she often seemed unimpressed by expensive ones. In fact, the more inconsequential the gift Dar gave her, the more Kerry seemed to cherish it.
She needed to do a little shopping for herself, but what she really wanted was some kind of….ah. Dar spread the magazine open and gazed at the advertisement, a quarter page near the back. It featured the picture of an aircraft carrier, and a grin spread across Dar’s face as she read the details. “The Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum Yeah. Now that’s more my style.”
She checked the address. It was on the Hudson River, near mid-town, not all that far from her. Walking was an option. Taxies were an option. Dar considered carefully. Hm. But so was the subway. She drummed her fingers on the magazine, remembering her last sojourn underground.
Chicago, when they’d gotten stuck in the dark under the river, and she’d practically ran out of the station at the other end, nearly getting her and Kerry into a lot of trouble.
The clenching in her guts made her angry. “God damn it, not that too.” She made her decision and got up, adding her wallet to her back pocket and sticking the room key in there as well. “Maybe I’ll ride that damned thing until they throw me off.”
Grabbing her sunglasses, Dar marched out of the room and closed the door behind her, heading for the elevator with a grimly determined look on her face.
She was losing patience with herself. Dar waited for the elevator to open on the bottom floor of the Hyatt, and then she crossed the lobby and exited the hotel’s ornate and stately front door.
Outside, the heat slammed into her, but lacking her wool suit, Dar now shrugged it off as she would have back home. She slipped her sunglasses on and directed her attention to the building adjacent to her hotel. “Grand Central Station. Bet I can catch something there.” She headed for the building, trotting up the steps and entering the wide, ornate doors.
Inside, she stopped, drawing to one side and blinking as she took in the vast, cavernous chamber that spread to all sides around her. The scale was immense, but more than that, there was an indefinable sense of history here that even Dar picked up on.
It was also beautiful. “Huh.” Dar slowly walked forward, and started down the steps into the main hall. The ceiling curved overhead, painted in a deep blue, featured the signs of the zodiac and the stone walls seemed freshly scrubbed, their construction solid and imposing.
Slowly, she made her way down to the floor, looking around at the status boards listing trains leaving for points outside the city. People walked all around her, intent on getting to their destinations and she was forced to restrict her gawking lest she be bowled over by aggressively marching city residents.
Her PDA went off. Dar stepped to one side and pulled it out of her pocket, glancing down at the screen.
What’s the word in Spanish for fornicating pig?
Dar looked around in reflex, clearing her throat before she removed the stylus and considered her answer. As opposed to a pig that’s just standing there eating?
A man glanced at her as he hurried by, making eye contact as he looked over his sunglasses. Dar gave him a brief smile, then returned her attention to the pda as it chirped.
With a sigh, Dar shook her head. “Hope you aren’t getting into that much trouble, sweetheart. Fornicando puerco, but I’m hoping you’re not putting that on a Powerpoint slide screen.
She only had a moment to wait for the answer.
Oh, yeah. A hundred memorable quotations from the inimitable Dar Roberts, annotated. It’s gonna be great!
Dar laughed in pure reflex. Troublemaker.
Just venting a little of my frustration with some help from my best friend. The fornicando puerco is finally done. My turn. Later. Love you.
Love you too. Dar leaned against the stair railing and smiled, letting her eyes linger over the words before she sent them and tucked the machine away. A small kiosk caught her eye and she dodged through the crowd, arriving at the souvenier stand without getting run over. The stand had an old photograph of the station, in black and white, with a striking series of sunbeams pouring through the upper windows.
Kerry would most certainly appreciate it. “I’ll take one of these.” She selected a poster tube and handed over the money for it to the dour, unlit cigar chomping man behind the desk.
“Sure ya don’t want it in a nice frame, lady? Got a great bargain here on this one.” He indicated an ornate, gilded monstrosity.
“No thanks.” Dar politely refused. “I’ve got to carry it on the plane. This is easier.”
“Whatever. Later. G’bye.” The man turned to another customer, leaving Dar standing there with her poster in her hand slightly taken aback by the gruff attitude.
Collecting herself, Dar edged against one of the walls and peered around, finally spotting the entrance to the subway. She approached it, pausing a moment before she started down the steps.
The walls were all bright and cheery, but for every second she was on the stairs, Dar was aware of the fact that she was moving further and further under the ground. Her throat went dry, and she swallowed in reflex as she reached the first platform, and was faced with a number of posted signs laying out the different routes.
Dar stopped in front of a subway map, using the excuse of studying it to allow her heartbeat to settle. She could still see the steps up from where she was, and there was sufficient space around her. “Okay.” She exhaled, focusing on the maze of colored lines in front of her. After a moment, her brow creased. “Jesus.” She muttered. “I’ve seen spiderwebs less complicated than this.”
The thought of a taxi suddenly became extremely appealing. Dar glanced over her head at the steel infrastructure, wincing a little as some train nearby rattled past and a gust of cold air blew against her. “What in the hell am I doing?”
Seeing if you have any guts at all left? Her inner voice mocked her.
With a scowl, she turned and walked to one of the token machines, studying it for a minute before she inserted a few bills and retrieved a square of cardboard for her troubles. She looked at it, then her expression brightened. “Hey. I can prove to Kerry I did this.”
Looking around to find her route, Dar started off down a passageway, sidestepping a man playing a flute and two women selling bags of.. “Hm.” She paused and purchased a bag of churros, taking one out to nibble on as she explored further into the maze.
Her selected route was the Times Square shuttle, since that appeared to let out reasonably close to the Intrepid museum, and more importantly, wasn’t that far underground. Dar found the correct platform relatively easily, and leaned against the metal support, waiting for the train to arrive.
Okay, so far, so good. Dar glanced around her, then she walked down the platform to where a small set of steps seemed to lead downward. She peeked down them, spotting more signs leading to more platforms, leading to different trains, which seemed to run in every direction at many different levels.
The complexity and seeming random-ness unexpectedly intrigued her. It was almost as though some kids had taken six or seven of their individual train sets and threw them all together, pouring glue on top and hoping for the best.
Dar turned and surveyed the station she was standing on, taking in the tile mosaics, and the patchwork grid of the ceiling beams that crossed and recrossed each other. The steel members seemed old, almost ancient, though the station tiles appeared new, and the facility was well kept.
The train arrived, in a clatter of wheels and a blast of musky air. Dar waited until the occupants had exited, and most of the people waiting to enter had gotten in. Then she stepped onto the train, appreciating the chill of the air conditioning as she selected a seat on one side, near the back and settled into it.
The train was about half filled. Dar studied her subway map, giving the doors an impatient look every few seconds when they obstinently refused to close. As the train sat there, a few latecomers jumped on, and one of them, a tall bronze skinned girl in black denim and leather took the seat next to Dar.
They studied each other for a minute. Then the girl lifted one of her leather boot encased feet and put it on her opposite knee. “Yo.” She addressed Dar pleasantly. “You ain’t from here, huh?”
Dar’s eyebrows cocked slightly. Behind her sunglasses, she glanced down at herself, comparing her appearance to the appearance of the rest of the train’s occupants.
Hm. Apparently New Yorkers in downtown Manhattan didn’t dress like refugees from a Jimmy Buffet jamboree. Dar spared her tropical fish t-shirt, with it’s half cropped sleeves with mild bemusement. “No.” She allowed briefly.
“Yeah.” The girl folded her arms over her chest. “That’s what I figured. Cause us New Yorkers don’t go round half naked like that, y’know.”
Since the train wasn’t moving, Dar decided conversation wouldn’t hurt, and it would keep her mind off the butterflies in her stomach. “Why not?” She asked. “It’s a hundred degrees outside.”
“Just cause we don’t.” The girl responded readily. “I mean, you dress like that, you just asking for guys to come out, and be all like, touching you, and all that jazz. You know?”
Dar tilted her head and let her sunglasses drop down on her nose slightly, making actual eye contact with the women. “No, I don’t.” She drawled, hearing the touch of molasses enter her tone.
“Yo. You got some really cool eyes. I like that color.” The woman complimented her. “They real?”
Dar blinked, her brows arching up. Then she realized what the woman meant. “Yeah.” She pushed her sunglasses back up and leaned back. “What’s with the train?” She changed the subject to one she figured the woman would know better than she did.
“This?” The woman pointed up over her head. “Oh, I don’t know. They just do that sometimes. Just make em stop, bam. Like that.”
Erf. Dar glanced at the still open door. Just then, though, the speakers crackled to life over their heads and a gravely voice intruded into the train.
There has been a power failure up the line and all the trains are stopped. Do not stand in the doorways. The trains can move at any time. Thank you.
It was like an omen. Dar figured. This was God’s way of telling her to get the hell off the damn subway and go take a cab like any other self respecting Floridian would. She started to get up, but as she did, the doors whipped closed, and the train started moving unexpectedly, throwing her back into her seat. “Guess we’re leaving now.” She commented dryly.
“So.” The girl edged nearer. “Where ya from, what’s ya name?” She held out a hand. “I’m Scuzzy.”
Dar eyed her in alarm. It’s a sixty second ride, Dar. Deal with it. “Dar. I’m from Miami.”
“Cool!” Scuzzy shook her hand firmly. “That’s a cool name, and Miami’s a cool place.” She said.
“Thanks.” Dar smiled briefly.
Abruptly, the train slowed and stopped again. Dar glanced outside, and saw nothing but black tunnel walls. Behind her glasses, she closed her eyes and tried not to think about how many tons of granite buildings were perched over her head, pressing down on tunnels she was sure were far too old based on the ones she’d seen in the station.
“Yo. You like hockey?”
Dar opened one eye. “What?”
“Me and my buds, we’re going down to the ice rink and play killer hockey. You wanna come play? I can see you do somethin’ with all them muscles you got.”
Dar swore she heard creaking outside.
Subways, she realized, were looking like a bad, bad mistake.
“Fudge.” Kerry glowered at her PDA. “Fudge, fudge, fudge.”
“Something wrong, boss?” Mark whispered.
Kerry rocked back in her chair, shedding some of her fidgets. “Ah… Dar’s stuck in New York.” She sighed. “Maybe until Friday.”
Mark scribbled a few things on his pad, making a show of paying attention to Michelle Graver’s presentation. “Well, she’da been wasted being here. Hell, you’re wasted being here. We coulda sent one of the sales interns to do this crap.”
“Mm.” Kerry had to agree. “It’s all a dog and pony show.” She checked her watch, wishing her turn was over and they at least had the minor entertainment of lunch to look forward to. “Oh well, it’s the startoff session. I guess it was to be expected. I’m glad Dar’s not here.”
Totally not true.
“She’d be wigging.” Mark muttered wryly.
Kerry leaned on her elbow and pictured her partner’s restless attitude without any problem at all. Her PDA chirped and she glanced at it, reading Dar’s longer, more coherent message absorbedly. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She groused under her breath. “You’re gonna owe me for this, you little southern fried…”
“Uh… Kerry, did you say something?”
Kerry closed her PDA and dragged her attention back to Michelle. “Nope.” She sighed. “Isn’t it time for lunch, yet?”
Mark looked at his wrist. “It’s only eleven o-clock.”
Green eyes studied him from under half lowered lids. “I missed breakfast.” Kerry admitted. “I was in a rush this morning because I overslept.”
“Forgot the old alarm, huh?”
Kerry managed a wry grin. “My alarm’s in Manhattan.” She watched Mark’s face color a trifle. “You asked.”
“Sure did.” The MIS manager agreed ruefully. “TMI, boss. TMI.”
“Mm.” Kerry listened to the speech with one ear, hopeful she was detecting a sense of closing in Michelle’s voice. “Sorry about that. But it’s true. Dar’s better than any clock I’ve ever seen, and it’s really hard to hit her snooze button.” She rested her head on her fist, her eyes traveling slightly as she saw a newcomer enter, walking quietly over to sit by Shari and lean close to talk to her.
Something familiar about the man made her frown, and she nudged Mark’s arm slightly. “Who is that guy?”
Mark swiveled in his seat and looked. “Hey.. isn’t that the guy from Tech TV? The one who was interviewing you and big D?”
Ah. No wonder he looked familiar. “Uh… huh.” Kerry mused. “Now, isn’t he cozy with the competition. Wonder what’s up with that?” The man seemed very friendly with Shari, and as she watched, he took out a pad and a camera, put the camera on the table, and scribbled some notes on the pad. “Ohh… ho. What do you want to bet he’s not asking for advice on home DSL routers?”
“So, in sum.” Michelle cleared her throat. “We hope to show the kind of value any company looking to outsource their IT solutions has a right to expect.” She rested her hands on the lectern. “We hope to open a new era in providing the types of services to all companies that only the largest, richest companies have been able to afford in the past.” Her eyes wandered, apparently randomly, to Kerry’s and held there for a moment, then moved on.
Kerry deliberately flipped open the top to her PDA and scribbled a note on it, then tapped send.
“Towards that end, I’m sure you’ll be delighted to hear, Mr. Quest, we have invited a member of the distinguished technology press to join our bid team, and chronicle our progress, and how this challenge evolves into what I’m sure will be a great success for whoever wins it.” Michelle went on, smiling easily and giving Shari a knowing look.
“Hm. Somehow I got the impression that Quest dude didn’t want this whole thing publicized.” Mark muttered under his breath. “He doesn’t look real happy.”
Kerry observed the forced smile on Quest’s face. “No, he doesn’t.” She agreed, sending a last note on her pda before she closed it up.
“Thank you for your patience and attention.” Michelle surrendered the lectern at last, taking her notes and retreating around the side of it before she headed back to her seat to a smattering of applause.
“Ah. Yes.” Peter Quest scratched his cheek, then stood up. “Ah, thank you, Ms. Graver. Now, ah, before we break for lunch, we have one final presentation.” He half turned towards Kerry and raised his brows. “Ms.. ah, Stuart?”
Kerry stood up and gently pushed her chair in, then walked around to the lectern and rested her elbows on it, leaning forward and waiting until the room’s pre-lunch restlessness stilled and she had their attention. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” She allowed a faint, self deprecating smile to appear on her face, and took the time to make eye contact with those interested enough to be looking at her. “When I was asked to present a basic infrastructure outline here, I wasn’t notified of the three ring circus.”
A number of faces twitched, not expecting the gentle attack.
“If I had been, I’d have brought my performing SEAL and dancing hamster.” Kerry straightened up, to a sudden, surprised round of laughter. “Unfortunately for you all, I only have an IT infrastructure presentation, so I vote to plow through it so we can all have lunch, how’s that?”
Another round of laughter, and some applause. “You buying?” One of her competitors shouted.
“How about I cook?” Kerry shot back, with an engaging grin. “I’m told I make a killer PB and J.”
The crowd loosened up and perked up at the same time, exactly the response Kerry was going for. She waited for the laughter to peter out, and sorted her brief notes.
“Oh, sorry.” Michelle half stood, a sour sweet expression on her face. “Did you need the projector? I’m afraid we’re pretty connected to it.”
“Nah.” Kerry removed a small remote from her pocket. “What’s the point in being the richest kids on the block, if you don’t have the neatest toys?” She pressed a button. “We don’t need no stinking projector.” She waited for the thin laser wand to emerge from the back of her laptop, and raise up, opening the aperture and shooting a thin blue beam just over her shoulder. Kerry glanced back and adjusted the beam slightly, then triggered her presentation to start. “As I was saying….”
Behind her, a neatly drawn and notated network diagram appeared, starting with a core, and spreading out to the edge devices, all neatly encapsulated inside the outline of a ship.
Kerry turned and peered at it, then swiveled back around to the room. “We have a saying in the IT biz.” She said. “Parts is parts.” With a laser pointer she indicated first the core, then the remote devices. “Like in any network, best case practices dictate we treat this ship’s infrastructure just like we would any sound network. The biggest differences we see are the need for solid, absolute redundancy and the need to bolt every darn thing to the floor to keep it from pitching overboard.”
“And pay a premium for it.” Shari remarked.
“Well, that’s true.” Kerry agreed cheerfully. “We don’t generally give our clients blue light specials.” She smiled at Shari. “But I can see the incentive for that for companies with… fewer resources… than ours.” Her finger clicked on the button, and she waited for the screen to paint with Dar’s next drawing, an intricate schematic of the primary piece of equipment she intended to use for the bid. “To make a long story short, folks – this is what we intend on using. The design allows for all the functionality Mr. Quest specified. Our complete schematics will be put into his hands for review, and frankly, that’s really all I have to say regarding our intentions.”
She clicked through two more screens showing some general dimensions of the equipment Dar had chosen, then stopped on the last one, which showed a pretty graphic in several colors that illustrated the interconnected types of communication which would flow through the system.
“The bottom line, ladies and gentlemen.” Kerry made eye contact again, pinning Quest last of all. “Is not who can do this the cheapest and easiest. Anyone can do that.”
“Economy is a strong motive, Ms. Stuart.” Quest reminded her.
Kerry lightly shrugged both shoulders at him. “In the end, Mr. Quest, you’re the one who has to stand behind whatever decision you make.” She said. “So you have to decide how much you’re willing to risk in terms of reliability and protection. Because that’s what this is going to come down to.”
“Parts is parts.” Kerry reminded him. “We all know how to do this. Just because it’s on a ship doesn’t change anything. “ She pointed at him. “But you’re the one who has to face the rest of your company and your customers if what you buy doesn’t hold up.”
Quest fiddled with his pencil, clearly uncomfortable. “Yes, well, that’s all fine. Are you done?”
Kerry clicked off her projector, and watched it fold neatly back against the spine of her laptop. “Yep, I sure am.” She tucked the remote in her pocket and took her notes, which basically consisted of the words ‘kiss my ass.’ “Let’s take a break, shall we?”
Everyone stirred, and started to rise. Kerry circled back around to her seat and pulled her laptop case up onto the chair, opening the top so she could slip her machine inside it’s padded bay. The speech had been a trifle more aggressive than she’d planned, but after Michelle’s pandering, she knew she had to make a mark and distinguish their plan as something different.
So she had. Kerry was very aware of the eyes on her as she put her gear up, and she carefully and deliberately slid the leather strap into it’s buckle and fastened it before she looked up. “Okay.” She half turned to face Mark. “Ready?”
“Whatever you say, boss.” Mark responded, already shouldering his own briefcase. His face showed that he was out of his depth and he knew it. “Lead on.”
Kerry only wished she could lead them both right on out of the hotel and down the street to a little sandwich shop Dar favored with little ambiance and great food. Instead, she knew they’d have to suffer through lunch at the hotel which would likely be robust with carefully shaped lettuce leaves and relatively tasteless.
They all filed out, and she and Mark politely waited as several of the other bidders hurried to follow Michelle and Shari and their reporter guest. After the last had gone on, she fell in step at the end, giving Quest a half nod as he picked up his notepad and prepared to join them.
“You know, Ms. Stuart.” Quest kept his voice down as they left the room. “I didn’t really appreciate your attitude up there.”
Kerry hooked her thumb through her laptop case strap. “Well, you know, Mr. Quest… you asked for competitive bids. I think you got what you asked for.” She regarded him briefly. “I’m not here to blow smoke up your tail. I think you know that.”
He didn’t answer for a few steps, as they watched the other bidders cluster around the reporter. “Where’s Ms. Roberts?” He asked. “I thought for sure she’d be here for this. She has some very significant competitors there.”
Kerry resisted the urge to pull out her PDA. “Dar? She’s working with a client of ours who has a major application issue they came to her to solve.” She related.
“So that’s more important than signing new business?”
A dry chuckle. “If you were the other client, how would you want me to answer that?” Kerry said, as she started down the steps towards the fountain bedecked luncheon restaurant. “Dar put time in on the design for your account. Now she’s left it in my hands. We’re both comfortable with that, I’m sorry if you aren’t.”
Slightly taken aback, Quest drew in a breath and edged slightly away from her. “Ms. Stuart..”
Kerry pointed suddenly at the reporter. “I thought you said you wanted to keep this quiet, Mr. Quest. How does that impact your plans?”
Quest fell pensively silent. “It was unexpected.” He admitted finally, as they reached the bottom of the steps. “But it’s all that geek talk. No one I care about will see it or give a damn.” He shrugged. “So if you want to spend all your time pissing on each other, Ms. Stuart, and giving them ratings – go for it. I’ve got more important things to do.”
Kerry watched him walk off, glad of the few moments quiet respite before they joined the others. “Know what?’ She remarked to her silent companion.
“What?” Mark made a vague clucking noise.
“You know that look Dar gets, the one where she sort of squints, and you think she’s going to bite someone?”
“I’m so understanding that look right now.”
Mark sighed. “Man, you guys do this all the time? I don’t think I could handle that. These guys suck.”
Kerry patted him on the back and had to silently, if ruefully agree as they reached the group and joined the rest of the nattily suited men and women in sitting down at two large, round tables. “You know what Dar would do?” She whispered behind her hand as they took chairs next to each other.
“Cheeseburger, fries and a shake.” Mark whispered back. “Somewhere else.”
Kerry took her napkin and popped it open, laying it across her lap with an easy grace as she reviewed the menu card placed on her plate. “Yeah.” She exhaled, finding herself directly across from Shari, who took pleasure in smiling fiercely at her. “Or she’d order a pizza.” She found herself smiling for a different reason. “Delivered to the table. But we can’t, so let’s just make the best of it.” She lifted her glass and sipped some cold water from it.
It was going to be a very, very long day.