Winds of Change

Part 9

Okay, let's try this again.” Dar exhaled, as they pulled up to the airport for the second time that morning. “Do me a favor?”

Anything.” Kerry put the car into park. “Have I said how sorry I am about being so dumb?”

A dozen times.” Dar leaned on the console between the seats. “Please don't be the last one out tonight.” She studied Kerry's face. “Please?”

Okay.” Kerry put her hand on Dar's cheek. “I promise.”

Dar covered her hand and then gently kissed it. Then she released her and got out of the car. “Let me go talk to someone in security. Hopefully they won't try to arrest me.” She put her hands on the door frame. “See you tomorrow.”

Call me when you get there.” Kerry said. “And good luck, hon. Though I don't think you need it.”

Dar smiled briefly, and waved then shut the door and reluctantly turned her back on the car and trudged into the entrace of the airport.

Kerry sighed, and watched her disappear, then she put the SUV into drive and carefully manuevered her way out of the drop off area and onto the exit road. She was still somewhat sick to her stomach from the morning's events and she took a sip of water from her water bottle as she eased into traffic trying to settle herself.

She was glad Dar was only going to Washington overnight. She already missed the convenience of the private jet they'd enjoyed, and as she drove, she pondered the possiblity of managing their own in the relatively near future.

Less stress, less trouble with security, flying on their own schedule. Huge benefits, the only issue being the cost. Kerry exhaled. Well, if they got some decent business, maybe it would work out financially.

She settled back in the seat and headed on the relatively short ride back to the office. The highway was busy, but not packed, and she turned on the radio as she headed for the exit, her mind going back to her scary morning experience.

No doubt, it had shaken her. Shaken Dar, who had gotten into that trucelent gruff mood she tended to when she'd taken a scare. Having extracted a promise from Kerry that she would be really cautious, and not go walking around outside without taking someone with her, Dar had finally agreed that they could wait to engage the security group after Kerry finished her review of them.

Didn't make her happy, Kerry knew. Dar would have much preferred to have stayed around, or taken Kerry with her, but they both had jobs to do and after all, it was only one day.

Yeah. Kerry sighed as she pulled into the office parking lot. Just one day. Twenty four hours, pretty much. She got out of the SUV and locked it, stuffing her keys in her front jeans pocket before she started up the path heading to the door.

She'd been spotted, apparently. The door opened and Mayte trotted out, coming to join her and walk her up the path. “Hey.” Kerry said. “My afternoon appointments here?”

The first one, yes.” Mayte agreed. “They just arrived, I have put them in the conference room.”


The police also have called.” Mayte continued. “There will be one to see you here later.”

Okay.” Kerry pushed the door open, and paused. “Let me go get my portfolio.” She started up the steps. “Is the coffee service in there?”

Yes.” Mayte said. “I will go and offer them some.”

Kerry went into her office and to her desk, hoping her partner was having a much smoother afternoon herself.


Dar leaned against the counter, waiting for the flight to be called. She'd gotten through security with only a small bit of trouble, deciding to try using her charm instead of her kickass for a change and getting the lightest of scoldings from the airport security supervisor.

Now she just wanted to get on the flight and get the trip over with.

Her phone buzzed, and she stepped away from the desk, pulling it out and glancing at it. “Hello?”

Hello there, Dar.”

Hey Gerry.” Dar said. “I missed my flight, about to board a second.”

No worries, lady.” The general said. “Just wanted to give you a heads up, heard from the boys up the road that the president wants to meet you. Tonight, after your pow wow.”

Dar's eyebrow shot up. “Me?”

Yes, lady, you.” Easton sounded pleased. “Didn't want to you to be shocked out your knickers don't you know. I'll let you be then, have a good flight.”


Bye, Dar. See you in a few.”

Dar stared at the phone after it went dead. “I don't want to meet the president.” She stated. “I”m going to end up insulting his ass and they're going to throw me in jail.”

Ma'am?” The check in agent behind the desk leaned towards her. “Did you need something?”

Dar sighed “No, sorry. Just talking to myself.” She muttered, shifting over as the agent started announcing the boarding of the flight. She debated calling Kerry, then shrugged and dialed her partenr's number.

It rang twice, then was answered. “Hey babe.” Kerry's voice sounded wryly amused. “I made it up the sidewalk into the building. Mayte guarded me.”

Maybe she should come guard me.” Dar said. “Gerry just called. Apparently the president wants to meet me.”

Brief silence. “Oh.” Kerry's mental track changing came across audibly. “Ew.”

Mm.” Dar watched the agent step over to the ticket turnstyle. “Anyway, I gotta go on the plane. Just thought I'd let you know what's waiting for me on the other side.”

Want me to have my mother show up to guard you?” Kerry asked.


Her partner chuckled softly. “Now you made me want to rush over there and hide in your suitcase, instead of be laughing that I thought you were checking up on me. We're full out nutcases, honey.”

We are.” Dar smiled. “Okay, let me let you go.” She shifted off the counter and got into line, handing over her boarding pass as the woman scanned it. “Thanks.”

Know something?” Kerry asked, as Dar walked down the jetway. “I really do wish I was going with you.”

I wish you were going with me.” Dar admitted. “So let's get off the call before I run out of this airport for the second time and get gang tackled.”

Bye hon.” Kerry said. “Call me later.”

Dar put her gizmo in her pocket and entered the plane, sliding into her seat in the front row after putting her backpack up into the overhead. She settled back and gazed out the window, watching the activity of the hard working people outside. She had a change of clothing in the pack, and it occurred to her that she'd be meeting the president in a pair of jeans.

Would that matter? Dar considered, and decided it probably wouldn't, and even if it did, she was going to convince herself she didn't care.

With that in mind, she pulled out her gizmo again and typed off a quick message to her parents, in case it turned out to matter and she ended up somehow either on the news or in a tabloid paper.

You never knew. She sent the note, then turned off the gizmo as the plane finished loading, and the crew went to close the door. Dar glanced behind her, seeing a lot of empty seats, including the one next to her. She buckeled her seatbelt, then leaned on the center console as the flight attendant came over.

Hi. Can I get you something to drink before we take off?” The woman asked.

Orange juice if you have it.” Dar said. “Pretty empty, huh?”

The woman glanced back and shoook her head. “People still don't like flying.” She said, somewhat sadly. “Much as I hate working overbooked flights, this is just scary.” She confided. “How can they keep going, you know?”

I think people will start traveling again.” Dar said. “It'll just take some time.”

The flight attendant smiled briefly. “I sure hope so.” She left to get Dar's orange juice, as the plane gently backed away from the jetway and the safety video started to play.

Dar settled back into her seat and removed the copy of Skymall from the pocket, leafing through it as the plane taxied. She studied the several varieties of dog beds, wondering if Chino and Mocha would like one for their garden.

Then she had to pause, and enjoy a moment of self deprecating humor at the thought that she was sitting here shopping for pet beds and pewter giraffe toilet paper holders. What was it Alastair had told her once? That she'd become a good family woman?


Nevertheless, she kept browsing, spotting several more items she could envision invading their collective personal spaces. She paused on one page, considering, as the plane started it's takeoff run. Garden gnomes. Did they need a garden gnome? What about one that recycled drinking water for a dog dish?

Her mind imagined Chino drinking from it, then the image morphed to Mocha sitting in the bowl, with water pouring over his head. “Maybe not.” She flipped the page, then tucked the magazine aside as the plane took off and headed skyward.


Kerry scribbled a set of notes, the last of several pages of them after this last meeting of hers for the day. “Okay, Charles, thanks.” She said. “Wow, those are a lot of projects.”

Charles Suarez, the man seated across from her nodded. “I know.” He said. “There was a lot of pent up demand internally, for these smaller projects that we don't have personnel bandwidth for, and which the bigger guys had no real interest in working with it on.” He looked apologetic. “No offense to your former employers.”

None taken.” Kerry scratched her jaw with the edge of her pen. “I turned down smaller projects myself in my past role. There's a break even point where you can recoup enough revenue to match the resource spend and since all the groups were sized for enterprise, there wasn't much point in having them work on stuff like this.” She indicated the pages. “But that's not the case here.”

Charles smiled. “Exactly.” He said. “My company had me contact you soon as we heard, because our operations group really liked working with you.”

Kerry smiled back. “Thanks for that compliment.” She said. “I'm glad you got to me early though, I've had potential clients in here the last couple days with all kinds of requests. I 'm a little surprised, given the economy.”

You shouldn't be.” He shook his head. “It's because of the economy. No one wants to take big risks, and everyone's looking to keep costs down. Engaging the big guys meant big costs, and engaging an unknown small firm meant big risks.”

Ah.” Kerry tapped her pen on the desk. “I didn't think of that. We always were going to open our own business, it just wasn't the timing we'd anticipated. But here we are.”

Here you are.” Charles agreed “So if you could quote all that, I'll take it to my leadership group and we can see if we can budget to get it done.”

He stood up, and so did Kerry. They shook hands, and Kerry stepped around her desk to walk him back over to the stairs. “I really like some of the things you guys want to do with mobile communcations. “Kerry commented, removing her gizmo from her pocket and showing him. “I think these things are going to get more popular.”

Is that the Handspring?” Charles asked, eagerly. “Can I see it?”

Kerry handed it over. “We've been using them, testing them really, for the past couple of weeks. I really like it. It lets me mix text and mail with a phone, and only have to carry one thing. I used to carry a cell phone and a PDA, this is better.”

You bet!” Charles tapped on it. “Oh, I see there.. are those programs?”

Basic ones.” Kerry took it back. “Dar has one on hers that tells her the tides and sea conditions.”

Cool.” Charles nodded. “That's what we think too, that people are going to like having things like that. So we want some programs that let people with phones like that interact with us. We want to be able to send them notes about specials, and have them text us back to hold one for them, or things like that.” He said. “We're a specialty grocery, you know? It's all about local for us.”

“”I get it. I live out on Fisher Island.” Kerry said. “We have that kind of personal relationship out there, where you can call and talk to a butcher whose name you know, and who knows you. It's sort of like recreating a small town thing.”

Exactly!” Charles agreed. “So these ideas, how to really boost up local business, and not so much on a national level, is where our local managemet thinks we can take advantage of the consumer mindset right now.”

Kerry saw him to the door, and waved, and then detoured into the conference room to get a cup of coffee. “Hey.” She smiled, at the cafe runner who was repensishing the cart. “Just in time.”

Hey Kerry.” The man smiled at her. “Heard you had a scare this morning.” He said. “What a bunch of jacktards those guys are. Gary told them not to come around asking for leftovers if they were going to act like that.” He offered her a small tray of neatly sliced pound cake. “Try the lemon. It's really good.”

Kerry selected a slice and bit into it. “Oh.” She swallowed hastily. “That is good. Really moist.”

He nodded. “Exactly – I don't like it when it's all dense and dried.” He put the tray down and swapped out a hot thermos of coffee. “Your honey around? They sent over this chocolate chocolate chip muffin for her.”

Kerry started laughing, perching on the conference room table. “Boy, it didn't take you long to zero in on her, did it? Dar's on her way to DC at the moment. She'll be back tomorrow.” She took the muffin. “I'll try it for her. But yeah, this morning wasn't much fun. I have to take a lot of blame for it though, I left the door open. Kinda dumb.”

It's a company. You had the right to? We leave ours open when we're in there.” The man protested. “Guy had no right coming in here and messing with you. Especially that guy.”

Kerry cocked her head. “Why? I heard from the police he's some kind of minister?”

The man handed her a cup of coffee. “That's what he says. From what I heard, he picked that position so he woudln't have to get shot at, but still get all the perks of being in the military.” He wiped around the cart. “Anyway, gotta get back to the shop. Enjoy the muffin.” He winked, and took the old coffee thermos as he left her to ponder.

Kerry dropped into a seat and leaned back, breaking off a piece of the muffin and chewing it as she sipped. She checked her watch, then as if in response, her gizmo buzzed in her pocket. She put her coffee down and removed it, smiling when she saw the caller id. “Hey.”

Hey.” Dar's voice echoed softly, with the background of a busy airport behind her. “Heading to the Pentagon. How'd your meetings go?”

Really well, and glad you got there all right.” Kerry said. “Call me after you meet Dubya.”

Ah heh. Yeah.” Her partner sighed. “Later.”

Kerry released the line and put the gizmo down on the table, a smile still on her face. “Hope someone takes a picture.” She said. “Hey, wonder if that's going to be a publicity thing?” She asked aloud. “That would be crazy publicity.”

She finished the muffin and dusted her fingers off, then picked up her coffee and returned to her office. “What a day.” She commented to Mayte as she crossed through the outer office. “I've got two more meetings, right?”

Yes.” Mayte agreed. “Florida Power and Light, and someone to see you from the Qwest.”

Ah yes.” Kerry went to her desk and circled it. “Someone who wants to sell me something rather than hire us.” She checked her mail, and opened one. “Ah.”

Her security presenter from the previous day. She propped her chin on her fist and regarded the note, viewing it now from a slightly different perspective. There was something in her that resisted having security at the door, no matter how creepy the morning had been, and, as she reminded Dar, despite what the man had threatened he really hadn't done any more than talk.

Just talk. Hot air.

Would he have done more? Kerry felt instictively he wouldn't have, though she really didn't have any solid hard reason why she did.

A soft knock came at the door and she looked up. “C'mon in.”

It opened, and Mark's head poked inside. “Hey.”

Kerry motioned him forward. “Come. Did I say thank you to you for rushing in here to save me this morning?”

Mark chuckled and came inside, walking over and dropping into one of Kerry's visitor seats. “So listen.” He said. “No problem about the ride in. Dar was pretty freaked out.”

I know.”

I got this guy who's a family friend.” Mark said. “He's a freelance security guard.”

Uh huh.” Kerry let him talk it out, though she could plainly see where it was going.

He's also an artist.” Mark pushed his train onto an unexpected track. “He likes painting and stuff, and he does security to pay the bills. Anyway, I thought maybe you might want to bring him on for now, until we can sort out the alarm systems and monitoring and all that stuff.”

Kerry leaned back. “Like a freelance?”

Mark nodded. “He's not real corporate.” He said. “I woudln't have suggested him for the old place, but he's a real good, solid guy, and he's got some buddies he can bring in to trade off.”

That seemed more appealing to her than bringing in a security firm. “Okay.” Kerry decided. “I like that idea. I don't really want uniformed guys marching around in here. I don't want us to have that kind of culture in this place.”

Mark nodded, and grinned. “Yeah thought so.”

So bring your guy in and let's meet him.” Kerry said. “And his buddies.”

Will do.” Mark stood up. “I called him earlier, so he's waiting for me to call back. Okay for him to come over now?”

Yup.” Kerry leaned forward. “I would love to tell Dar we worked out security while she was in DC.” She said. “Before she has to go and meet the president.”

Mark stopped in mid motion and looked at her, both dark eyebrows hiking up. “Say what?”

Yeah. She's bummed. But maybe if they make it a photo op we'll make the Washington Post and get some business out of it.” Kerry winked at him.

As long as she doesn't pop him one.” Mark said. “That could be more publicity than we need, y'know?”

Oh I'm sure she won't do that.” Kerry said. “She's way too smart, right?”

Mark eyed her skeptically, then disappeared out the door, shaking his head.

Right?” Kerry asked her faint reflection in the monitor.. “She won't hit the president. She knows that means she won't get to come home to us, right?”

Kerry sighed. “Right.”


All right, boys. Now pay attention to Dar, and lets get this rolling.” Gerry looked pointedly at the half dozen men sitting in the room, then nodded briskly at the one woman standing at the front of it. “Go on then. I'll go get some chow arranged.” Gerry walked to the door, which was opened by his aide, and disappeared.

The men all looked at Dar, who looked back at them in a long moment of uncomfortable silence.

Well.” Dar finally broke it. “I guess we can start with hello, my name is Dar Roberts and I”m the solutions architect for your new database system.”

The eyes watching her were dubious, to say the least.

Dar absorbed that wryly. “I know none of you are deaf mutes. Gerry would have warned me.”

She could see the wary shift at her casual use of the General's first name. “So what is it? You don't trust civs, you don't trust women, you don't like girls who are taller than you are? I won't bite you.”

The one on the far left, a brown haired man with a scar under one eye cleared his throat. “I'm John Duggan.” He said. “Senior technical officer for the Coast Guard.”

Aw. Leave it to the coasties to speak up first. “Hi John.”

We really don't know who you are, ma'am.” He said. “Except some civilian woman from some civilian company we've never heard of, who we're supposed to cooperate with.”

The other men looked gardedly grateful at the words but kept their eyes on Dar.

Fair enough.” Dar said. “I am some civilian woman from some civilian company you've never heard of because the company was just formed a couple weeks ago. Prior to that, I was the CIO of ILS. Which is also a civilian company but one you might possibly have heard of.” Dar observed the nods. “I left there and started my own company and the very first contract I signed was the one that has me here in this room.”

You know the General.” John stated.

I do. Or more to the point, the General's known me since I was born.” Dar stated mildly. “My father is retired Navy. So though I'm some civilian woman from some civilian company the service isn't as alien to me as you might think.”

A thin, middle aged man with dark hair and glasses regarded her. “You're Andy's kid.”

Dar nodded again. “I am.”

Ken Charles.” The man said. “Head of Naval intelligence systems. So that explains why you'er here, but doesn't really explain what the hell we're supposed to do with you.” He stated. “I know all about this scheme of the Joint chief's to get us all communicating but what they don't know, and what I assume you do know, is it aint't that easy.”

Our systems aren't compatible.” John agreed. “We all know it, we all live with it. Those goompahs up top think they can just wave their arms around and make that not the case. Well, they can't.”

We'd have to all change to new systems.” A third man spoke up, young and blond and with a ferocious crew cut. “Aside from money, which aint' coming to do that, we're at war. No time to mess around with intelligence systems.” He gave Dar a trucelent look. “Dan Draper. Army.” He added, pointing with his thumb at a fourth man. “This is Daddy Perkins He's my tech lead.”

Daddy was a cherubic looking man of middle age, with round, astonished eyes and pink cheeks. “Hello.” He said. “What he said.” He pointed bac at Draper. “These guys don't know what they're asking.”

A little silence fell. Dar waited, to see if anything else was going to be offered. She had her arms folded over her chest and she was leaning against the white board. “You all done?” She asked, after the silence had lengthened enough to be uncomfortable.

They nodded, after glancing at each other.

Okay.” Dar turned and picked up one of the white board markers. “So let me just run down what I committed to Gerry to get done, then we can sit and argue about it.”

Gonna be a long day.” Draper commented.

That's all right by me.” Dar responded, as she sketched. “I just need a break to go meet the president. Then I'll be back to argue all night if you want.”

Ah.” John grunted. “What's he want from you?”

That was my second contract.”

Holy crap.”

That's what I said.”


Kerry regarded the man sitting across from her with some bemusement. “So, Carlos, Mark tells me you're an artist?”

The big, square jawed man across from her dwarfing her chair nodded. “I paint.” He said. “And I do .. three dimensional stuff? Like metal sculpture and carved leather.”

Really.” Kerry said. “That's impressive. I'm always blown out by people who can do art. My mother in law's an artist.”

Yeah?” The man said. “Local?”

She lives off South Beach. Cecilia Roberts.” Kerry saw the start of recognition. “I see you've heard of her.”

Sure. Seen her stuff in the galleries down there. Nice.” He said. “But y'know, unless you're mainstream it don't always pay the bills.”

That's what she says too.” Kerry agreed. “So you freelance as a security guard?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I lift weights and stuff, and I look the part.” He grinned. “But I'm always booked for late shift, or mids, y'know? And I like to work on my stuff at night. Doesn't work for me during day hours for some reason.”

Kerry leaned forward and rested her elbows on her desk. “Well, that would work for us, because at least right now, we're closed at night. We work pretty much eight to eight. We kinda need smeone around.”

Mark told me. He was freaked.”

I was freaked, he was freaked, my partner was freaked.. it was just a full on freak show here.” Kerry agreed. “But also, we're working on some government contracts, and we think it would be a good idea to have some security around.” She tapped a pencil on the desk. “You interested?”

He nodded. “I like Mark. We went to school together.” He said. “I knew he was tied up with that big company and that's not my style, but he kept asking if I wanted a job there.”

Not most of our styles, apparenlty.” Kerry's eyes twinkled. “So we can do this one of two ways. We can hire you on direct, or, if you want, if you have a company of your own, we can contract you.”

He was already shaking his head. “Dont ask me to do all that company stuff. I can't even do my paperwork for my art.” He said. “I”ll come work for you, and I've got some buddies, if you get like you need night guards, that would love to do some hours too, this is a nice area.”

Most of the time.”

Those guys... I seen them.” Carlos said. “I think I can handle them.”

I think you can too.” Kerry agreed. “To be honest, I”m pretty sure Dar could have handled them, but you know we're business owners and respectable women, so I think it's better to hire some nice, big strong guys instead.”

Carlos chuckled. “I”ve been hearing about Dar for like twenty years.” He admitted. “Be cool to finally meet her. Mark's got all kinda stories.”

Yees he does.” Kerry smiled. “She'll be back tomorrow. But for now, let's walk you down to personnel, and we can get you started, and, also, we can talk about what kind of money you want.”

Right on.” He stood up, towering over her. “Mostly us contract guards, we get minimum wage. No one sticks around real long.”

Probably that's why.” Kerry led the way towards the stairs. “I think someone with your experience should be worth more than that, don't you?”

Oh, lady, I like you already.”


Dar leaned back in her chair and folded her arms, rocking her head back and forth a little to loosen the muscles on either side of her neck. “Next objection?”

The door opened, and Gerry poked his head in. “Dar? Car's here from the White House for you.” He looked at the scribbled full white board, and the scattering of notepads with boxes and lines on them on the table. “We doing all right, boys?”

Dar stood up and pushed her chair in. “Let me go meet wth them, Gerry, so these guys can answer you honestly.” She winked at the group, then slipped out past Easton where an aide was waiting. “You for me?”

The aide nodded, and smiled. “I've been assigned to accompany you, Ms. Roberts.” He said politely. “Please follow me.”

Dar amiably did. “Least I have my drivers license this time.” She commented.


Last time I went to the White House, I had no ID.” Dar said. “Day or two after 9/11.”

Oh my goodness.” The aide said. “What did they do?”

Well, they wanted to talk to me bad enough to let me in but they sure as hell weren't happy about it.” Dar followed the man out a side door, to a black sedan, whose driver opened the back door for them. The aide slid in, and Dar joined him, as the door was closed and the driver got in and started off. “This is going to go a little better I suppose.”

The aide eyed her. “You're pretty calm for someone being taken to meet the President.”

Dar half shrugged, deciding not to admit to the stomach flutters and lump in her throat. After all, it was just another person, and one she didnt really much like.

Her handspring buzzed and she pulled it out, finding a message from Kerry waiting. “How does she know when to do that?” She wondered, selecting it.

Hey hon!

Guess what? I hired a security guard. Here's a picture of him! His name's Carlos, and he's a friend of Marks.

Dar studied the picture, her eyes widening at the massive figure. “Holy crap.”

Ma'am?” The aide leaned forward.

No, sorry.” Dar went back to the message. “Just a note from home.”

He's an artist, who does this on the side, but I hired him full time because he wanted to work day hours, not night like everyone else wanted him for. I gave him a benefit plan, and brought him in on a salary, since I want him to be in charge. He has friends who would be interested if we needed to go 24/7 or something like that.

Dar felt a sense of relief, looking at the big, rugged, honest face in the picture. “Dad'll like him.” She muttered under her breath, then keyed in a reply.

Good job! He looks like a tank. Now I feel better about sleeping alone in Washington tonight. On my way to meet the Prez, wish me luck.

She sent the note, then relaxed back in her seat.

Was the meeting going well?” The aide asked, after a few minutes silence. “The General was wondering.”

I think it'll be fine. I was about halfway through convincing them.” Dar said. “Lot of objections, but I like that.”

You do?”

She nodded. “Means people are thinking, not just going along for the ride. That's always good for everyone. The more questions, the better.”

The aide eyed her. “You've never been in the military, have you?”

Dar smiled. “No. I think that's why Gerry hired me for this.”

I think you're right.”


The first meeting was with Bridges, in his office again. He had a group of four men with him, and he wasn't about to let then have the kind of free for all that Dar had just experienced with the military IT staff.

All right people.” He sat down behind his desk. “So now that I've told everyone we're doing this, let's do it.” He looked across the table at Dar. “You got your plan ready?”

Dar nodded. “I have a blueprint, and a starting point.” She said. “I have data base designers working on the frame work.”

Bridges grunted. “This got higher profile than I thought faster than I thought, even though I”m the bastard who's supposed to think of all this crap.” He admitted. “Laughed my ass off when I was told not to use your former company, by the way.”

So did Kerry's mother.” Dar said.

Bridges chuckled dryly. “Bet she did.” He said. “But because of that, this thing has to show results PDQ.”

The other men in the room just listened quietly, notepads at the ready, waiting to be given directions. Dar found them annoying.

How long will it take for that?” Bridges asked her.

Dar thought about it. “I can probably prototype it in sixty days.” She concluded. “It'll mostly be raw and wireframe, but you'll have an idea of what it'll do.”

Bridges onsidered that. “Might need to be sooner.”

Do you want it to work?” Dar asked, bluntly. “Or just be smoke and mirrors. I can do smoke and mirrors in two weeks but it'll do zero useful crap for you.”

He chuckled dryly again. “Let me get back to you on that one.” He said. “I see you remember our last dance.”

Dar smiled briefly.

You really think you can do this?” Bridges asked. “No one wants to look like an ass. I don't want this to be paraded around CNN for a year, then turn out that we wasted our money and got nothing for it.”

Dar steepled her fingers and rested the tips of them against her lips as she considered. Finally she exhaled. “If you are asking – can I create a system that lets you intelligently search a massive dataflow, then yes. If you want to know if I can pull some magic rabbit out of my ass, and prove it works by catching a bad guy? I don't know.”

Bridges lips twitched. “We can fake the second.” He said, with blunt honesty. “What I don't want is some smart ass to get into that system and find out it doesn't actually work.”

What I give you will work.” Dar stated, then stopped talking.

Bridges waited, then as he realized nothing more was forthcoming, he grunted. “Okay.” He looked at the four men. “Your jobs, people, are to give this woman whatever it is she asks for in the way of access, data, people, authorizations, keys to the executive bathroom, you name it. She's got carte blanche, to use an out of data saying that doesn't mean much anymore.”

Dar, having come to the meeting expecting to have to sell her design again, was silently startled.

Yes sir.” The oldest of the four said. “We understand.”

Do ya? If this thing works, it means there's a chance...” He looked at Dar. “A chance, that some jackass somewhere in some government building sitting at a screen might find something that will prevent 9/11 from happening again. You all got that?”

They all nodded.

The bloody idiots on Capital Hill know about it.” Bridges said. “It was not my idea to tell them.” He added, as an aside to Dar. “In fact, the next time I'll know who not to tell who wasn't supposed to tell but did. But they did, and they know, and now I've got congressidiots calling me every ten minutes worried about privacy. Privacy!” He lifted his hands. “Idiots! Theyre all worried their damn affairs are going to end up in the Washington Post!”

Dar remained silent, her hands folded on the table.

He turned to her. “So what are you going to tell them about privacy?”

I'm going to tell them the truth.” Dar said. “If they ask me.”

Nice.” He sighed. “My next career's going to be on a farm somewhere feeding chickens.”

Dar shrugged slightly. “You can't search thorugh all that data manually. It's just not possible. So either you know what questions to ask, and the system finds what you're looking for, or you trust the algorithm to make the connections and toss up something you hadn't anticipated.”

Bridges frowned at her. “Are you telling me something like, this thing will have intelligence?”

To a degree, yes.”

All of them were staring at her. “Is this... some kind of science fiction?” The older aide asked, hesitantly. “Because it sounds like it.”

Rockets were science fiction once.” Dar answered. “At some point, you reach the Turing test, and the programs become so advanced it seems like there's intelligence. Once you have something that can judge and evaluate datapoints, and return a result based on their weighting of them, how different is that than how you, or I, decide what to have for breakfast every morning?”

Bridges pursed his lips and made a sputtering noise with them. “Think I'll just tell them I hired a voodoo practitioner and they're killing chickens in some back office of the Pentagon. It'll scare em less.” He stood up. “C'mon, woman. Let's go get the dog and pony show over. I'm guessing you got some work to get done.”

Obligingly Dar stood up and followed him out the door. They walked down the hallway of the executive office building, heading down some steps and through what appeared to be a tunnel.

Lay off the scifi with him.” Bridges advised. “He doesn't like it.”

No problem.” Dar said.

They walked down the long hall and up another flight of stairs, then through a door and they were in spaces she'd seen on television. Dar just tried to keep her mind blank, and let the flashes of whitewashed walls and tall ceilings just move past her, obscurely glad she had Bridges leading the way.

Then they were down another hallway and in front of a door, and her guide was rapping on it. “Bridges.” He called out.

C'mon in, Mike.” The answer filtered through the wood.

Ready? Doens't matter.” Bridges worked the latch and shoved the door open, entering the room and drawing Dar after him.

It was one of the smaller offices, Dar realized. Not the big Oval one, but impressive enough. There were pictures and hangings on the wall, a plush carpet with the seal of the President on the floor, a huge desk, and behind it a somewhat scruffy looking man in a pullover with blinking eyes and a folder of papers in one hand

Mike, hey. Who've we got here?” The man asked, his expression brightening on seeing Dar and his posture straightening up. “Hello there, ma'am.”

The irony was so crunchy Dar felt like she was chewing on year old Frosted Flakes

This is... “ Bridges turned. “What the hell is your real name?”

Paladar Roberts.” Dar supplied. “But everyone calls me Dar.”

The President put his folder down and stepped around his desk, extending a hand. “Well, hello there.” His grip was dry and firm. “You're the computer lady, right?”

Right.” Dar agreed, releasing him. “Nice to meet you, Mr. President.”

Hey, great. Thanks for coming over.” He pointed to a pair of wingback chairs in the corner. “Lets sit down a minute and you can tell me what this is all about. I want to understand what we're tryin to do here.” He glanced at Bridges. “Tell them to send one of the photogs in, Mike. I never like to lose a chance to get a picture of me with a good looking woman.”

Sure.” Bridges gave him a droll look. “Be right back, Roberts. Remember, no sci fi.”

Dar accepted the surrealism, and took a seat in one of the chairs, hiking a knee up and circling it with both hands as the President took the other chair, wishing belatedly she'd brought Kerry with her.

Without a shadow of a doubt, her partner would know far far better how to deal with this. “So.”

So.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees in an oddly adolescent posture. “What did you say people called you? Dar?”

She nodded.

Mike tells me that you're going to work up something for him that will let him find bad guys, living here.” The President said, in a straightforward way. “Call me George, by the way.”

All right.” Dar responded. “It was explained to me that you want some way of delving into the public internet, and sifting through all that data to find things that could harm us.”

The President smiled. “You got it.” He said. “So you're doing that?”

Dar cleared her throat. “I'm going to try.” She said, honestly. “I”m going to develop an intelligent set of automatic filters that will be programmable by the people who work for Mr. Bridges, and you, to try and do that.”

Bush thought about that for a minute, and Dar let him, remaining silent. Finally he looked back up at her, with an unexpectedly sharp stare. “People ain't gonna like us messing with the Internet.” He stated. “They don't want the government sniffing all up in their business, you know what I mean?”

I do.” Dar agreed. “They won't. Just the idea, from an ISP, got eveyrone in an uproar and all they wanted to do was target advertisements.”

Yeap.” Bush said. “But this thing.. you said it was automatic?” He questioned. “Like machines are doing it?”

Dar nodded. “The idea was.. “ She found herself to her surprise laying it out for him as she hadn't for Bridges “The programming algorithms are designed to find connections. “

He started nodding, but remained silent.

And they deliver the connections to analysts, who can decide if they really are connections, or not.” Dar said. “You can't have someone looking at everything, it's too much.”

Bush was still nodding. “So the machines are looking, and they only kick it to a human when they find something they don't like.”


The President smiled and gave her a thumbs up. “Got it.” He said. “So we can tell people – we aint' snooping on you. It's just a machine, looking for patterns. No one's watching you look for porno.” He winked. “See, Mike just cares about results. I care about results too, but I'm the one who has to put their mug on television to take the blame for all of it.”

More or less, yes. The interface will look on it's own for things that fall out of baseline.” Dar said. “So if, it sees.. a larger number of airline tickets being purchased one way, in a short period of time, it'll assemble that for review – but also.. “ She lfited a hand. “It's to give the analysts a way to look for something in natural language.”

Like, anyone buying a lot of fertilizer components today that never did before?” Bush asked.


He smiled again. “You're a smart lady.” He paused, watching her. “Your dad's a war hero, huh? I heard that.” He glanced up as the door opened and a slim young man entered with a camera. “Hold off a minute, Josh.” He put his hand up, then waited for the man to back out. “Thanks.” Then he turned back to Dar. “Navy was it?”

Yes.” Dar responded. “Though he probably wouldn't call what he did heroism. Just a job.”

My daddy says that too.” Bush responded. “And I always told him he'd be a hero to me if he'd done nothing but catch crabs off the coast of New England.”

So odd, to find a synergy in this, the most weird of places and strangest of people. “Well, that's how I feel about my dad also.” Dar admitted. “I think we're lucky that way. Not a lot of people are.”

He smiled briefly, and looked away, then stood up. “C'mon in, Josh.” He put his hand on the chair back. “Mike tells me you've got a lady friend, is that right?”

Dar stood as the photographer came back in. “Yes, if by that you mean I'm gay.” She responded mildly “And I have a life partner.”

He nodded. “Good. This'll do good for my demographics.” He waved the photographer over. “And they won't think you're sleeping with half the lot of us.” He grinned rakishly. “Don't tell anyone I said that. Everybody assumes I'm clueless.” He pointed at the desk. “Should we take a shot there, Josh? What would look best, you're the expert.”

Bridges came back as they started to get arranged, and Dar had a moment to pause, shake her head, and think about the long, long message she was going to type to Kerry.

Who would not, absolutely not, believe it.


Dar lay flat on her back on her acceptably comfortable hotel bed, her eyes closed as she listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. “That's what I said, hon.” She agreed, as Kerry finally wound down. “I just walked in the hotel twenty minutes ago. Finally got done arguing with Gerry's boys.”

Holy crap, Dar!”

Mm... didn't figure of the two appointments his would be the gnarlier.” Dar agreed, mournfully. “But I finally got through it, so we can move forward with the high level design.”

Did you get dinner?”

I got a subway meatball sub for late lunch.” Dar said. “That's what they have at the Pentagon, apparently.”

Better than Burger King I guess.” Kerry sighed. “I sent chocolate.”

So I smell and see.” Dar tipped her head to one side and regarded the festive looking basket. “Thanks. Defintely better than Burger King. I think I see Kit kat bars.”

They had that, and peanut butter cups.” Kerry exhaled. “Mocha and Chino have been running me crazy all night. They finally just settled down, and I'm going to have a bowl of soup or something.”

Want some of my Kit Kats?”

I want you.” Kerry's smile was audible. “Do you have to go back over there tomorrow?”

In the morning, yes. Need to set up the delivery timeline.” Dar said. “And, I guess, the ILS team there wants to get a handshake in.”


Dar chuckled softly. “Wish you were here.” She said, unexpectedly. “I”m so used to having you around, it's weird when you're not.”

Funny. I was just thinking that.” Kerry's tone warmed. “It's crazy isn't it? I lived by myself for a long time here before we met, and now I can't even remember what that felt like.”

Dar thought about that for a minute, as she listened to Kerry breathe gently in her ear. She did remember what that had been like, those long years of living alone, and how quiet it had been. Quiet like it was in the hotel room, just the creak of the building around her and the far off sound of street traffic.


Hm?” She dismissed the memory. “Just thinking. Been a weird day.”

Having to meet the president?” Her partner laughed softly. “You handled it really well, hon. I don't think I would have, and I”m sure you were a lot more comfortable talking about your dad than I would have been about mine.”

Mm. I did okay. Hey, you think room service would have hot dogs? I feel like a hot dog.” Dar rolled up onto her feet and went over to the small desk in the room, flipping through the menu. “Why in the hell would someone want to eat the heart out of a palm, Ker? That sounds brutal.”

It's just a vegetable.” Kerry answered in an indulgent tone. “You'd probably like it if they dumped peanut sauce on it.”'

I like everything with peanut sauce. Especially you.” Dar chuckled .”Oh, here we go. Two hot dogs, a bowl of chili, and a plate of nachos. I can make my own chili cheese dogs.”

Oh, Dar.”

Dar imagined her beloved's pain expression without effort. “Nah, actually they've got snapper filet. I”ll get that.” She pushed the menu aside and dropped into the chair. “So we got a security guard, I sold two designs, you wrote three contracts and I met the President. All in all, a good day.”

Except how it began, and the fact you're not here.” Kerry said. “Aside from that, we're good.” She said. “Okay, let me let you go get dinner. I'm going to get my soup, and go for a walk with the kids.”

Okay. Talk to you tomorrow.” Dar said. “Kiss the kids for me.”

Kerry chuckled. “I will. Night hon.”

Night.” Dar hit the key to hang up and juggled the Handspring in her fingers, then let it drop to the desk. She glanced at the phone, then got up and went back to the bed, sitting down and pulling her boots back on. “Let me go find a real hot dog.” She decided. “Better than hanging out in this boring room.”

She shrugged into her jacket and slipped her keycard in her back pocket, then ran her fingers through her hair before she went out the door. The hotel lobby was sparsely populated, and she only glanced into the restaurant before she went outside and braced herself against the chilly wind.

Turning up her collar, Dar stuck her hands in her pockets and strolled down the road, glancing at the store fronts as she passed. There was a scattering of other walkers on the street, and she crossed with some of them, seeing a few couples walking together hand in hand and talking.

Now, she really did wish Kerry was there with her, and she flexed her hand almost able to feel the warmth of her partner's as she imagined folding her fingers around hers. They had started doing that in public, lately, or sometimes Kerry would ease over and slide her hand into Dar's front pocket, bumping lightly along with her in somewhat clumsy comfort.

The sudden scent of garlic distracted her, and she noticed two of the couples heading towards a restaurant on the next corner. She trailed after them, and found herself at the door, pulling it open and entering.

It had a typical brick and wood interior, and smelled great. Dar patiently waited her turn, then followed the very busy hostess to a table near the window, passing between much bigger ones surrounded by large groups.

Busy restaurant on a weekday, good sign. Dar relaxed in her chair and opened the menu the woman had left. There would be no hot dogs, but she not only recognized most of the dishes, she'd eaten a number of them before.

Getcha something to drink?” A waitress was standing at her table, with an inquiring look.

Ah. Dar regarded her choices. She really wasn't much of a drinker – Kerry could easily put her under the table – and she usually indulged when they were out mostly to keep her partner company. However. “Beer?” She ventured. “Draft?”

Foreign or domestic?” The woman asked.

Foreign.” Dar decided. “Nothing dark.”

Sure.” The woman whisked off. Dar figured out what she wanted and put the menu down, then half turned in her chair to study her fellow diners.

Well, it would be better than having a hot dog. Dar leaned back and exhaled. And better than consuming the contents of her gift basket. She smiled briefly as her beer was delivered. Maybe she'd even end the night by taking a walk.


Kerry toweled her hair dry, and stuck her head out of the bathroom, hearing a growl fest going on in the living room. “Hey, what are you guys doing?”

Chino came trotting into the room, her tongue lolling out. “Growf!”

Mocha lalloped in after her, spotting the towel Kerry had wrapped around her and seizing on the corner of it gleefully. “Yap!” He backed up and tugged the fabric with him.

Hey! Cut that out!” Kerry tossed the towel in her hands back into the bathroom and made a grab for her modesty. “C'mon now! I ran with you guys for an hour. Aren't you tired out?”

Yap!” Mocha stood up on all fours and peered at her, his tail wagging furiously.

Oh my gosh.” Kerry traded her towel for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and ducked back into the bathroom to run a brush thorugh her hair. “Give me a second, okay?”

Nearly midnight, and she had to admit she was tired out. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, then blew her damp bangs back out of her eyes. “Ugh.”

Then she emerged, and leaned against the wall, regarding the waterbed pensively.

Choices. She could sleep downstairs, here in what was once Dar's bedroom and was now both of theirs. The waterbed was comfortable, and it was where she usually slept.

However, she was never so aware of Dar's absence as she was when she was in that bed, alone. A little silly, she knew, or probably a little crazy, but she coudlnt' help feeling the way she did and so, with a sigh she abandoned the room and trotted up the steps with the dogs right behind her, moving down the upstairs hall and into the condo's master suite.

Big and with high, arched ceilings, tall glass doors that opened onto a broad, shaded patio, soft sea foam green walls, and light wood furniture she almost never used.

Had done, for a little while, when she'd first moved in with Dar and she'd put her things up here, in the plethora of drawers and cupboards, and in the walk in closet that was half the size of her original apartment. She still had clothes hanging in that, her business suits and formal wear, but the rest of her stuff was and had been mingled with Dar's for a long time now downstairs.

She would occasionally spend a sunny winter afternoon on the big porch, reading for a while but more often she'd go down into the garden, or out onto the two person swing chair on the main patio where likely as not Dar would join her.

There was another guest room upstairs, and the room she used as her office, and sometimes she would work up there, but never for long. It was just as easy to take her laptop and sit on the big leather couch in the living room, or in Dar's office downstairs where they would work together in companionable silence.

But tonight, here in the big room she pulled back the soft, fluffy comforter and got under it, as Chino leaped up onto one side of the big king size bed and turned in a few circles before settling down.

She reached down and picked up Mocha before he could start yelping, putting him down and giving him a kiss on the top of his head. “Chill out, and go lay down by Chino, okay?”

Yap.” He nibbled her chin and lay down on his back, waving his paws at her as she indulgently rubbed his belly.

I'm glad you guys are here with me.” Kerry informed them. “Even if you're running me ragged.” She leaned over and rubbed her nose against Mocha's and he licked her face. “It's nice to have something to distract me from missing your mother mommy.”

It really was silly, she knew. Kerry leaned over and shut the bedside light, sliding down and pulling the covers up over her. Dar would only be gone a little over 24 hours, and the fact that she was so occupied with thoughts of her really probably was not quite sane.

A pleasant insanity, to be sure. She settled down on her pillow and then reached over to pick up her Handspring as she spotted the flashing red light that meant a message.

And.. it was a message from Dar. Contentedly, Kerry opened it, delighted to find a picture attached. She reviewed it, turning her head slightly to one side. “What the hell is that, Dar?”

I decided to go out to eat and found this Italian place. It had these. Inside out pizzas It's full of stuff inside.

Ah, that's what that is.” Kerry went on to the next picture. “Tirimisu, nice.”

Now I'm out riding on the subway trains.

Kerry sat right up. “What???”

I'm so stuffed if I go right back to the hotel and go to sleep I'm going to be sick to my stomach.

Y'know, Dar, much as you're the most macha woman I know, riding on the train after midnight in a strange city isn't the smartest thing I ever heard.” Kerry rapidly typed out the same message. “Can't you just go walk around your room?”

She hit send, and waited, but not for long as thirty seconds later the phone rang. She answered it. “Hey.”

Hey.” Dar's voice came through clearly, but there were street sounds behind her. “Worried about me?” She chuckled. “I”m around the corner from the hotel, so relax.”

Nutball.” Kerry snuggled back down into bed, and exhaled, as Mocha curled up against her. “You said you were riding trains. I thought you got drunk at dinner.”

Can you get drunk on beer?”

Oh yes.” Kerry advised her. “And I have, and you've seen me.”

But you're so cute when you're drunk.” Dar said. “I”m going to walk around the block twice, then go inside. It's cold here. G'wan to bed.”

I am in bed, upstairs.” Kerry admitted. “With the kids.” She put her head on the pillow. “Please be careful, okay? I don't want anything to happen to you.”

Dar was quiet for a few moments. “You doing all right?” She asked, in a more serious tone. “You sound bummed.”

Did she? Kerry frowned briefly. “I'm fine, just been a really long day.”

Sure.” Dar's tone didn't alter. “Did those guys, any of them come back near the office?”

No.” Kerry felt her body relax a little. “Mark was keeping an eye out for them, and he put a webcam on the back loading dock.”

Dar chuckled softly.

He was really freaked out about this morning. He said he had no real idea of what he was supposed to do once he got here except start yelling and calling the cops.”

That was enough.”

It was, but you know when I finally felt safe? When you got there.” Kerry admitted. “Even more than the cops.”

Dar chuckled again. “Here you are telling me to get off the streets of Washington at the same time as you tell me I showed up like Thor, god of the internets this morning.”

Now Kerry had to laugh a little. “Yeah, schizo. I know.” She said. “I don't know. I should just shut up and go to sleep. I'm overtired.”

Sounds good.” Dar said. “See you after lunch?”

You got it. I'll be there waiting.” Kerry felt an odd reluctance to hang up, but she pushed that to one side. “Talk to you later, hon.”

Bye.” Dar said, then disconnected.

Kerry put the phone down on her stomach and studied the ceiling, surprised by the sudden sting of tears in her eyes. It felt like there was a tension gripping her chest, and she sucked in a deep breath, and then released it, glancing to the side as Mocha squiggled up between her arm and her ribs, snuffling at her. “Hey baby boy.” She allowed his cute eyes and button nose to charm her up out of her unexpected doldrums. “You going to keep me company, huh?”

The puppy had light green eyes, almost the same shade as her own. Now he was putting his small muzzle down on her arm and peering up at her. After a moment, his mouth opened and his pink u shaped tongue appeared.

Chino, apparently jealous of the attention, got up and came over to sprawl over Kerry's legs, resting her chin on Kerry's knee, and exhaling.

Kerry sniffled a little, and rubbed her eyes, clearing the moisture from them. It was hard really pin down what she felt bad about, and now that the moment was over, she felt a little embarassed about it. “I think I really am overtired.” She informed her attentive pets. “So let's go to bed. Right?”

Chino exhaled again as Kerry pulled the covers up a little, and closed her eyes.



Dar pondered the phone, leaning back against the wall of the hotel as she thought about her partner. It had been a long day, no doubt. The morning's stresses had bothered both of them, and that could be reason enough for Kerry's melancholy, but Dar was disturbed about it, and now was wishing the night would go faster.

And the morning would go faster. With an aggrieved sigh, she finished her stroll around the building, trotting up the steps then and into the lobby. Late as it was, on a weekday, the space was mostly deserted, the bar with only a few single patrons sitting and watching a game she could hear the echo of as she passed.

The desk clerk, busy with some papers, gave her only the briefest of glances as she crossed in front of him and angled towards the elevators. Then he straightened up. “Oh, Ms. Roberts?”

Dar stopped and turned. “Yes?”

Sorry, ma'am, there's an envelope for you.” He went to a cabinet and opened it. “It just came in about thirty minutes ago.” He turned and came over, holding it out. “Here you go.”

Dar took it, and regarded it. “Fedex.”

Yes, ma'am, late delivery. You can get Fedex here in pretty much anytime you want.”

Thanks.” Dar noted the address, and tucked it under her arm before she continued on to the elevator bank and took one up to her room

She put the packet down and changed into a pair of shorts and a tshirt, going to the mini bar and retrieving some milk chugs she'd ordered after she'd checked in. Then she sat down in the leather easy chair and opened first the milk, then the package.

It was from the Herndon office. Dar opened the folder inside and paused, looking at the large, in fact oversized greeting card tucked into the covering and acknowledging the lump it brought to her throat.

Made it hard to swallow the milk. She did, then she opened the card and paused, then started reading the many handwritten messages inside.

She remembered going to that office, enjoying a rare bit of laughter in that time when Kerry had to convince the building ot let her in. Her face tensed into a smile as she remembered, too, going into the control center, and having all those people there look up at her like she was some kind of celebrity.

There were messages there from the Pentagon staff too. Dar's fingertip traced the one from Danny, who'd gotten his arm bone cracked in the attack and she remembered the handful of people they'd lost in it, people she hadn't really known, but whose names had traced up to hers in the organizational chart.

There was a note from Nan.

Dar slowly sipped her milk and continued reading, a wistful smile appearing on her face. When she'd run through the notes twice, she got up and went to the small desk, sitting down at it and reaching for her laptop, then she paused, and took a piece of the hotel stationary out instead.

She took out a pen from her backpack and propped her head up on one hand, thinking briefly and then starting to write.

Hello people.

Big surprise to get to my hotel and find a card from you all waiting. I appreciate all the time you took to put down a few words so I thought I would take some of my own time and send a note back to you.

Dar paused and considered. Then she smiled a little and put her head back down on her hand

I know we only met a few times, in a bad situation. But sometimes, bad situations bring out the best in people, and from what I saw here, and across ILS, the best of ILS was truly extraordinary and you all were definitely a bright spot on a dark day.

A lot of you wrote, that you were honored to work for me. That's hugely flattering, but to be honest with you, it was always my view that I worked for all of you rather than the other way around. That'll surprise people to hear but if you think about it, I expected 110 percent from people because it's what I gave.

A part of me will always live at ILS. There are things that are written into the DNA of the place that came from my blood and sweat, and those of you in Netops are going to run into crap with my initials on it for a long, long time. Likewise, a little bit of my head and heart will alwoays be wondeirng how it's going, and how everyone is.

She had to stop, and sit back, surprised to find herself in tears. It was a little overwhelming, and uncomfortable and she waited it out, until her chest relaxed and her throat eased.

Wow. Where did that come from?” She slowly finished her milk, feeling embarassed. “Am I really that sentimental?”

Dar didn't think she had a reputation for soft heartedness, especially among these people. She looked down at the letter again, half minding to throw it away.

Then she sighed, and put the empty chug down, and picked up her pen again, wiping the moisture from her eyes and continuing to write.

At any rate, I hope you all go on being successful at what you do, and take the company to new places. Maybe we'll meet sometime down the road – thanks again for the note, and good luck to all of you.

She paused again, then she smiled, and signed her name, getting up and grabbing an envelope, and the Fedex pak that had the Herndon office's address and headed for the door.



Kerry jerked awake with a yell, sitting up and groping out with her hands to fend off the remnants of a nightmare that had her heart pounding so fast she coudln't count the beats.

No.” She uttered, covering her eyes with one hand, her entire body shaking. “Just a dream. Jesus.”

After a moment she caught her breath, and then she felt for the table light and turned it on, just as Chino started anxiously licking her ear.

Ahh!” Kerry stifled a yelp until she realized what it was, then she was shoved backwards by her upset pet, and Mocha climbing up into her lap. “Stop! Stop it!” She yelled, sharply. “Hey!”

Chino's ears went back as she stared in wide eyed alarm, while Mocha cowered down flat on the bed.

Sorry guys.” She got herself upright again and leaned against the headboard, a violent headache making red flashes against the inside of her eyelids. “Shit.”

She still felt short of breath, from a nightmare of being trapped under the half collapsed wall with everything pressing against her and air growing short, and no way out because she was alone and Dar wasn't with her.

Just herself, and the smell of burning, and far off screams, and being aware that she couldn't move and no one knew she was there.

No one to hear her screaming, just darkness, and pressure and a terrible, terrible fear. Of dying. Of being alone.

Her hands were shaking. She tucked them under her arms and rocked forward, putting her head against Chinos. “Sorry I yelled, honey.” She watched Mocha squirm closer. “I didn't mean to scare you. I was just scared myself.”

Chino whined, and licked her cheek.

Thanks Chi.” Kerry closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of fur and the clean linen around her. “Oh boy. Glad that doesn't happen often.” She straightened back up and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, blinking a little into lamplight.

Mocha made a little burbling puppy noise, snuffling at her fingers.

Yeah.” Kerry sniffled a little. “You guys want some cookies? Let's go down and have some cookies and milk, how about that?” She waited for the animals ot move and then pulled the covers back, getting out of bed and heading for the steps. “I need some hot milk anyway, and some asprin.”

She glanced at the wall clock as she reached the bottom of the stairs, it's luminescent face displaying 3:00 at her. “Great.” She muttered, crossing the living room and entering the big cobalt blue and white kitchen, flipping the light on as she cleared the arched entryway.

The tiles were cold against her bare feet, but she ignored that as she went to the cookie jar and opened it, removing a few of the biscuits and offering them to her attentive furballs. She watched them crunch for a minute, then she went to the refrigerator and opened it.

Hot milk. She closed the door and went and got a cup, then went back and filled it from Dar's beloved milk dispenser. She drizzled some honey in it, then put it in the microwave and started it heating.

That gave her time to do something about her headache. She shook out a couple of pills from the bottle in the cupboard and swallowed them down with a mouthful of water. “Shit.” She turned and leaned against the counter, folding her arms over her chest.

Aside from the headache, and the still perceptible chill in her body, she was now very wide awake. The thought of going back to bed was exceptionally unappealing to her and when the milk was done warming, she took it into the living room and turned on the TV instead.

She sat down on the couch, wincing a little as the cold leather surface hit her skin, then relaxing as it warmed up. She picked up the remote and surfed through the channels, bypassing a veritible cornucopia of infomercials and settling on a cartoon instead, turning the sound down a little as the colorful figures danced across the plasma display.

Chino jumped up onto the couch and curled up next to her and Kerry reached over and scratched her behind her ears. “Chi, that really sucked.” She said. “I hate nightmares. Why do I always have them when Dar's gone?” She asked the dog, who lifted her ears in response.

Which wasn't really true. She didn't always have them, and she had one or two with Dar right next to her. Kerry felt herself calming down, and she flexed her hands, the tension easing out of her. The thing was, when she had a bad dream and Dar was there, well, Dar was there and she'd wake up and hug her, and that chased all the shadows out fast.

Dar was very dependable that way. “Cornerstone of my life.” Kerry murmured, ruffling Chino's fur. “What would I do without her, Chi?”

Growf.” Chino put her head down on Kerry's leg.

Damned if I know.” Kerry let out a breath, rubbing her temples. Then she opened her eyes and looked around. “Where's Mocha?”

Chino's eyebrows twitched.

Mocha!” Kerry called out, then cocked her head to listen for puppy toenails. “Oh crap.” She hauled herself to her feet and started looking around. “Mocha!”

Chino hopped down and trotted after her, sniffing around in a puzzled kind of way.

Where is he...” Kerry checked around the kitchen, then went back and stuck her head in Dar's office, and then the bedroom. Nothing. “One place left to check.” She went back into the kitchen and opened the back door into the garden, immediately regretting it as the brisk air hit her lightly clad body. “Oh crap.. Mocha!”

Growf!” Chino bolted down the steps and across the grass, being met halfway to the gate by a small, dark form. “Growf!”

Yap!” Mocha galloped towards the steps, his small ears flapping

Get up here.” Kerry patted her leg, waiting for him to patter past before she closed the door again. “You little bugger!” She rubbed her arms “It's cold out there!”


Well, at least it had taken her mind off her nightmare. Kerry went to the hall closet and got out a sweatshirt, pulling it on over her head and then laughing softly as it came down to her thighs and the sleeves went past her hands. She pushed the sleeves back up to her elbows, then went back to the table where she'd left her hot milk.

Only to find a white stained brown face looking at her, licking it's lips.

Mocha.” Kerry put her hands on her hips.

Mocha licked his lips again, and got his front paws down off the table, seating himself and looking innocently up at her.

Kerry picked up the cup and took it back to the kitchen, rinsing it out and refilling it. She put the cup back in the microwave then crossed her arms, trying to figure out what to do next.

Finish the milk, she decided, then maybe catch a nap on the couch. Maybe think about the first time she'd slept there, on that stormy day way back when.

She smiled, remembering how carefully she'd printed out all the material she hadn't even really looked at, just to prove to Dar that she'd stuck around for legitimate reasons. What had they been? She still didn't remember, and looking back she was pretty sure neither of them were fooling either themselves or each other as she pictured those blue eyes watching her as she entered that kitchen wrapped in Dar's blanket.

Nothing of business in them. That faint little smile, that knowing arch of that dark brow and Kerry had known herself lost. Even now, as she exhaled she could feel it, a rolling, sweet richness of the soul and she somberly realized she might have found the genesis of her nightmares, this understanding of what she had and was unconsciously so afraid of losing.

Well. Kerry removed the cup of milk and brought it back into the living room. At least that was a damn good reason. She sat back down on the couch and put her bare feet up on the low table, idly watching Chino and Mocha play with a tug toy. She sipped from the cup and put her head back against the cushions, feeling the last of the twisting leave her guts.

Her mind shifted to another track. Would Dar have felt it, when she woke from the dream? Sometimes, it seemed like she could, in that odd, rarely spoken of synergy between them. But surely her partner had been sound asleep herself, tucked into bed up in Washington.

Surely. But Kerry wondered, if she went up and retreived her new gizmo, if there wouldn't be a note there for her. With a wry grin, she put the cup down on a higher side table this time, and got up, stepping over the tussling Labradors and walking up the steps.

She felt a tickle of anticpation in her stomach as she went into the bedroom, looked at the Handspring on the bedside table, and saw the stuttering red light of a message waiting. She picked up the device, and glanced at it, shaking her head a little when she saw Dar's name outlined in the backlight. “Maybe it's just a coincidence.”

She opened the note, saw the single word, 'nightmare?' on it, and abruptly sat down as her kneees threatened to unlock and refuse to hold her. “Holy shit.”

Dar had known. Without a question, no doubt at all this time, sharp as a laser point. “That's so creepy.” She whispered. “But I guess in a good way.” She hit reply and answered the note. Honey, I don't know how you know this stuff, but yeah. Freaked me a little, so me and the kids are downstairs and I'm drinking hot milk and thinking about you. I was remembering that first day I fell asleep on this couch, and it made me feel a lot better. Go back to sleep!

She sent the note and studied the device, shaking her head a little. For someone as relentlessly logical as Dar was, to have this odd sense be a part of her .. well, really, be a part of both of them did seem weird and strange. It went against everything her mind told her was rational, and edged into the sort of thing she regarded as 'out there'.

Dar, of course being the logical person she was, simply accepted it and said it didn't bother her since it wasn't like something she had any control over.

Kerry wasn't bothered really by it either, she supposed, she was just curious about how it all worked. “I wonder.” She mused. “Maybe when we go out ot the Grand Canyon, around those places a lot of people are into that stuff. Maybe we could ask someone.”

The Handspring sputtered red again. She chuckled and opened the response from her apparently still awake partner.

I don't know. I just get this feeling in my gut when you're freaked out and given what time it was, and the fact you were safe at home I figured it had to be a dream.

Elementally logical. Kerry smiled.

I remember that day. I remember watching you sleep there and wanting to crawl into the couch with you. You probably would have freaked out.

Ooh. Hon, maybe, maybe not. Kerry laughed silently By the time I was offering to cook for you I'd sorta figured it out.

I probably would have freaked out. But it ended up all right anyway. You go back to sleep too. See you tomorrow, hon. Miss ya. Love ya. DD

Kerry read the words a few times. “Cornerstone of my life.” She mused “Okay well, I should get back to bed beause otherwise tomorrow morning's going to be a real bitch. “ She got up and went back downstairs to rescue her milk, draining the cup and bringing it back into the kitchen.

Then, with a soft grunt of decision, she turned and crossed the living room again, but this time she went into their bedroom, and rolled herself into the waterbed, turning up the heater a trifle before she pulled the covers over her and closed her eyes.


Waking up a few hours later was still a little crunchy, but a cup of coffee resolved most of that and Kerry got herself, and the dogs into her car and on the road in relatively good order, though a bit later than the previous day. She settled her sunglasses on her nose for the ride, the weather being bright and sunny, with just that winter chill that convinced South Florida it did, too, have seasons.

There were already a half dozen cars in the parking lot by the time she got to the office, and as she pulled up Mayte came out to greet her. “Morning.”

Hello, Kerry. May I take one of the doggies?” Mayte promptly responded. “You have your hands so full.”

Sure.” Kerry amiably handed over Mocha's leash, not in the least fooled by the excuse. “Things quiet this morning?”

Oh yes. Much more than yesterday.” Mayte said. “The new security man is here, and he is very nice.”

They walked into the building, which was filled with a low buzz of activity that surrounded them as they walked up the steps to Kerry's office. She spotted Mark and Carlos talking in the hall, and waved at them, then crossed through Mayte's office into her own.

Chino trotted obediently after her, going over to the dog bowls in their raised platform and drinking from one.

Kerry put her messenger bag down and took her seat.

Kerry, would you like some coffee?” Mayte poked her head in. “I am going to take the little one down the stairs, and I could bring some back for you.”

Sure, thanks.” Kerry sat down and started up her desktop. A soft knock at the door and she looked up to find Mayte and Maria's new assistant peeking in. “Hi. Good morning.”

Pardon, ma'am, but you have a delivery. Is it okay?” The girl said, in a soft voice.

Sure.” Kerry folded her arms as the woman backed up and allowed a man to enter, carrying a basket. “Ah.”

He came over and put it down on her desk. “Here you go, ma'am. First delivery of my day.” He handed her an envelope. “Enjoy.”

Kerry regarded the basket after he left. It was completely covered in multicolor cellophane and she decided to open the envelope before she risked unwrapping it.

There was a very good chance it was from Dar. But there was always a possiblity it was from a prospective vendor, or even from her friend from the previous morning, in which case there could be anything including road kill inside. She'd gotten something like that more than once from business rivals, mostly full of vinegar and sour grapes.

She opened the envelope and took out the card inside, opening it to find a simple message, that put a smile on her face. Thought you could use breakfast. C ya. DD “Aww.” She put the card down and got up, taking a pair of scissors from her drawer and slicing through the cellophane.

Mayte entered with coffee. “Oh, that is so nice.”

Yeah.” Kerry was folding back the wrapping, exposing a big package of pastelitos. “Lets pass them around. I can't eat all these.” She chuckled. “Dar decided to send breakfast in.” She selected two of the treats and handed off the rest of them to Mayte.

Dar is very sweet.” Mayte ventured. “So thoughtful of you.”

Kerry smiled in acknowledgment as she sat back down. “She is. I am a very very lucky woman, and believe me, Mayte, I know it.”

Mayte grinned, but just waved as she took the tray of pastalitos out.

I sure as hell know it.” Kerry took a contented bite of her pastry and turned to her computer, only to be interrupted again by a knock. “Yes?”

Miss Kerry?” The new girl was back. “There is a policeman to see you.”

Oh well. Couldn't expect pastalito baskets every time. “Send him in, thanks, Ana.” Kerry took a sip of her coffee as the policeman entered, and she recognized one of the officers she'd spoken to the day before. “Good morning.” She gestured to one of her visitor chairs. “Officer...?”

Rudolfo Sanchez.” The officer sat down and pulled out a notepad. “Good morning, Ms. Roberts.” He said. “I just wanted to circle back with you on the situation we had here yesterday.” He cleared his throat. “Was going to drop by here late yesterday, but I had a call I was on.”

Sure, no problem.” Kerry leaned back in her chair and took a sip of coffee. “It's been quiet so far this morning, my staff said.”

Sanchez nodded. “Yeah, we kept Patterson.. that's the guy, overnight in the holding station. Figured he could use a night under a roof anyway.” He glanced at Kerry. “Joe, by the way. Joe Patterson.”

Good to have a name to put to the face.” Kerry replied, in a mild tone. “Roof or not, I”m sure he probably didn't appreciate the hospitality.”

The officer half shrugged. He was a man of medium height, and curly black hair, going gray at the temples. “He's been in before. You know these guys? They come back and they think the rules are like over there. That they can do what they want, because they've got guns, and a cause.”

Kerry leaned on her elbows. “That's kind of what's bothering me, because since my father in law's a retired SEAL, I'm sort of predisposed to be sympathetic to veterans. I don't want to mess with them or give them a hard time.”

Sanchez scratched his chin with his pen top. “Yeah, none of us do.” He admitted. “I tried talking to that guy, but it's all like a permanent road rage, you know?”

Kerry studied him. “So, what do you think we should do?” She asked. “I don't want to escalate this, and I can see where it could get like that.”

The policeman looked relieved. “Glad you see it that way.” He said. “Cause I was thinking sort of the same thing. With these guys, you push them, they push back, you push harder, they push harder. Know what I'm talking about?”

Possibly better than he imagined. “My partner's very much like that too.” She responded. “She absolutely does not, and will not back down, and I think that's going to end up a bad combination if we keep this up. So – what do you think we should do?”

He regarded her seriously. “You really want to press charges?” He asked. “You seem like a really bright lady. I think you kinda know he wasn't going to really touch you.”

Kerry thought about that in silence for a few minutes. He let her, merely sitting there across from her with his pad, waiting. “Can we use it as a bargaining chip?” She countered. “They leave us alone, I don't press charges? Or are they going to think I chickened out if I say yes.”

Sanchez was thoughtful. “How about this.” He returned the counter. “What if I put it like, you agree to hold off for a while, and we see what happens? I don't know if they'll deal.”

Kerry didn't know if they'd deal either. “What actually do they want?” She changed the direction of the questioning. “You said they were working at some half way house.. these guys don't have a place to live, or a place to go. In the best possible case, what happens to them?”

He shook his head. “Now that, I don't know. You heard about that one guy's family moving out? These guys feel abandoned. By their family, and by the service too. It's a hard thing.”

That doesn't seem right.” Kerry said. “Can you get me their names? I'd like to find out why they ended up the way they did.” She saw his wary look. “Don't worry. I'm not going to publicise them on the Internet or anything like that. We do work for the Department of Defense.”

Oh.” Sanchez said. “I didn't know that. What is it you people do?”

We work with computers. But Dar was just up having a meeting at the Pentagon, so at least we know the right people to ask the questions of.” Kerry explained, in a mild tone. “If we could help these guys out, I'd like to, even after the trouble we've had.”

The officer closed his pad. “I heard from those guys, that some military cars were here the other day.” He said. “Maybe that's why they were sniffing around?” He suggested. “They're always looking for an angle.”

Military cars... oh, right.” She nodded. “General Gerald Easton, from the Joint Chiefs, and then Michael Bridges, the president's advisor.” Kerry responded, with a brief smile. “They're clients.”

The police man stared at her.

So, really, we'd rather not get into a tussle with some veterans.” She continued. “Makes it kind of awkward, you know?”

Sanchez tapped his pen on his knee. “Okay.” He regrouped. “Let me see what that tack gets me. I'll tell them I talked you into holding off, and that they'd better steer clear if they don't want their benefits chopped.”

We woudln't do that.” Kerry objected. “That wasn't my point.”

No, but they don't know that.” The officer stood up. “Brass? That they get.” He said. “Who knows? Maybe they'll be offering to carry your briefcase to the car.” He winked at her. “Don't worry, ma'am. It'll be fine.” He lifted a hand. “Have a good day.”

Kerry waved in response, more than a little disturbed. “That wasn't what I was going for.” She sighed. “Crap.” She glanced down as her Handspring buzzed, and looked at it. “Ah.” A text, from Dar. “Glad you're on your way home, hon. I think I just got us in deeper than I thought.”

Her phone binged. “Yes?” She hit the speaker key.

Hey, Kerry.” Mark's voice sounded amused. “Check your email.”

I just did?” Kerry glanced down. “Oh, on my PC?” She looked over and spun her trackball, then clicked on the new mail on the screen with Marks name on it. “What is it... oh.”

Sweet pic.” Mark said. “At least she didn't wap him one.”

Kerry blinked at the screen, which had a cap of a newspaper article, with a picture of her partner and President Bush, the former drawing something on a pad on a desk, the latter standing by leaning on the surface and studying it. “Oh gosh.” She said, after a brief pause. “That really is a nice shot.” She glanced at the headline. “And I guess we got our publicity.”

'Sure did.” He chuckled. “Barbara just called me, someone at her office saw it. Didn't take us long huh? Three weeks and we're famous.”

No, hadn't taken long at all. “You got that right.” Kerry had to laugh a little. “Let me forward this to her parents. They're gonna die.” She scanned the article briefly, but it was bland, and general in tone. “Least they spelled the company name right... Mark, you probably should beef up the web server.”

On it.” He said. “Top of the roller coaster.. here we go!” He hung up, still laughing.

Kerry sighed, as she forwarded the mail to the rest of the company, and to her mother, and Dar's folks. “Yeap.. here we go.”


Continued in Part 10