Andrew looked up from the crate he was methodically ripping apart, correctly assuming the voice was addressing him. “Yeap?”
The supervisor hurried over to him. “Hey listen… remember that thing you told me about those invoices? You got any more tricks like that?”
Andrew leaned on his crate and considered the man, eyeing him with shrewd thoughtfulness. “Maybe. You got something better for me to do than mess with these here boxes?”
The man chewed his lip. “Well, I could… I’d hate to lose you out here because you’re the only guy I got who doesn’t bitch all the time, but I could do like a half day here, and half day in the office, how about that?”
“They got coffee inside there?”
The man chuckled. “Sure.”
“All right.” Andy nodded. “Saw them big trucks coming in this morning.”
“No kidding. All that damn high tech crap with ten thousand little pieces and no manifest. C’mon.” The supervisor motioned him to follow. “Let’s see what we can do so it doesn’t become a cluster.”
Andrew followed him willingly, leaving behind his crate full of bolts and nuts and emerging from the dockside warehouse into the sun. It was early yet on Wednesday morning, but he was passing glad to get out of the noisy, chaotic building with an opportunity to do something more interesting.
Not that he’d never unpacked boxes. He’d unpacked more boxes than Dar had brain cells but the action had limited opportunity for mental exercise though it did provide plenty of physical work.
They went into the trailer being used as an office. It was small and only barely cooled by an overworked wall air conditioner, and the four men sitting at old, scarred wood desks inside it were sweating as they worked.
“Hey, Brady.. gimme that file.” The supervisor held a hand out, and when the tattered manilla object was put in it, he promptly turned and gave it to Andy. “There.. see what you can do with that stuff. Most of it’s greek to me. I know carpet, hammers, machine parts.. this stuff’s just garbage.”
Andy opened the folder and studied the first page. “Wall.” He sniffed reflectively. “Mah kid’s one of them geek types. I think ah can figger this stuff out.”
“Yeah?” The supervisor sounded interested. “He want a job?”
Pale blue eyes looked up over the papers at him. “She’s got one already, thanks for askin.” Andy moved over to a chair near the side of the trailer, sitting down and putting the folder on his knees. What he had here, he realized after studying the papers for some minutes, was all the stuff he’d heard Dar and Kerry talking about putting in their ship. So it was a sure bet the two people working against his kids had come up with their own list and here it was. “First off.” He looked over at the supervisor. “Better make up some copies so I can mark on em.”
“Right over there.” Brady, the heavyset paymaster pointed at a paneled wall without looking up.
Andrew got up and went around the wall, finding a copy machine there. With a satisified grunt, he set the stack of papers down on the top sorter, and punched first the number 2, then copy.
The super poked his head around. “Listen, I cleared off the end of the table in there – you can use that to work on, okay?”
“Great!” The man disappeared, leaving Andy to stand and watch the copier do it’s work. He bounced up and down on his heels a few times, whistling softly under his breath until he heard the door slam open.
“Where the hell is that asshole?” A woman’s voice rasped.
Andy’s eyebrow quirked as he recognized one of the two targets he’d heard the previous day.
“Pardon me?” Brady asked, in a bored voice. “You’ll have to be more specific, lady. There’s a lot of assholes around here.”
“Heh.” Andy chuckled silently. “Ain’t that the damn truth.”
“Don’t give me that.. oh, there you are. Where’s our gear?”
There was a scrape, and a thump as the door to the trailer’s bathroom was closed, and heavy boots crossed the floor. “We’re working on it, ma’am. I got my best guy sorting all the deliveries right now.”
Andy’s eyes twinkled wryly, and he shook his head. “Lord.”
“That doesn’t help me. I need to know what’s here and what’s not.” The voice snapped back. “We don’t have time to waste on your stupidity.”
Andrew took his pile of copied papers and sorted them into two piles. He looked up as the super came around the corner. “Sounds like someone’s got a bee in their buttocks.” He drawled softly.
“Jesus.” The super rolled his eyes. “You think you can get me a list of all this stuff?”
“Yeap.” Andy allowed. “Bout an hour, something like that.”
“Great.” The man ducked back out. “Ma’am, we’ll have something for you in about an hour. We just got the invoices in now.”
“You’d better, or else your company’s going to explain to me why you can’t even keep truck deliveries straight.” The voice faded, then vanished, as the outside door slammed shut.
“What a bitch.” Brady snorted. “Sounds like she needs a good screwing.”
“You can have her. Not my type.” The super also left, closing the door more gently behind him.
Andy went to the small window and looked out it, spotting the stocky form of the bigger woman retreating from the trailer. He watched her disappear into the pier building, then he returned to his task, picking up the stacks of papers and going back into the main room.
The other men in the room eyed him, then went back to their work as he took a seat at the end of a long banquet table. He set the papers down and picked up a pencil lying on the table, examining the first page thoughtfully.
When Dar had taken an interest in technology, he’d made a point of going out and reading up on the stuff she’d decided to make her living from. Most of it wasn’t that much different from some things he’d encountered in the Navy, but it had it’s own language.
Since he’d retired, he’d taken the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the subject, and he felt he was almost at a point where he could at least have a somewhat all right discussion with his kid about it. So when he looked at the pages and pages of parts, at least the names and descriptions were somewhat familiar to him.
It seemed like they’d been shipped without any mind to what went with what though. Andy scratched his head and frowned. He knew the names, but had to admit that the functions of each of the gizmos were somewhat foggy, and he really had no way of guessing which part went with the next except by actually guessing.
“Wall.” With a shake of his head he started sorting out the bits by the maker, figuring at least if he put all the ones from the same place together it was a start.
“That’s a mess, yeah?” Brady looked over at him. “What a bunch of maroons shipping that stuff.”
“Yeap.” Andrew scribbled some notes down. “Pain in mah butt, tell you that. Don’t know what them folks was thinking.”
Brady got up and looked over his shoulder. “Weren’t.” He commented briefly. “You got a background in this sort of thing? Thought you were just a loader.”
“Done some stuff.” Andy answered. “Spent thirty years in the Navy, had to learn something.”
“Wow.” Brady’s attitude altered abruptly. “Really? Were you out on the ships?”
Pale blue eyes peeked up at him. “That is what the Navy does.” He replied. “But ah tell ya what, someone be this disorganized on a carrier, they’d be pitched overboard or sent shoreside fastern’ you could spit at em.”
“Yeah.” The paymaster agreed. “They don’t seem to know what they’re doing, you know? Like everyone’s doing their own thing, and nobody’s coordinating. Then you get those bitches like that one coming in here and thinking they own the joint.”
“Woman did have her an attitude.” Andy nodded. “Ain’t a way to get things done.”
“Yeah.” Brady said again. “Maybe we should stop jumping when she barks. That way she’ll back off.”
“Could be.” The ex seal agreed mildly. “I sure wouldn’t be saluting her, that’s for damn sure.”
Brady wandered off, going over to the other table and leaning over to talk to two of the men sitting there working. Andy peeked over at him, then put his head back down with a smile, continuing his sorting.
Dar pushed the door to the computer center opened with a stiff armed motion, almost hitting one of the techs on his way out. “Sorry.”
The tech jumped out of the way and stammered an apology of his own, then slunk out past her as she walked on by. Dar went past the MIS command desk and headed for Mark’s office, where she could hear voices already raised in excited conversation. “Hey.”
Mark’s head jerked up as she entered. “Oh.. hey, boss.” He greeted her. “Check this out!’
Dar obligingly circled his desk and focused her attention on the small, silver gray box sitting on top of it. “I’m checking. What is it?”
Mark turned it over, and displayed a circuit board. “Integrated unit. Plugged into our extra port for the projector down there, and get this.” He slid a small panel aside. “Cellular”
Dar peered at it. “No kidding?”
“No shit. “ Mark said. “They dialed in and activated it – sent the worm in over the cell link, then had it refocus out the network port. If Kerry hadn’t found it… Jesus.”
Dar picked up the device and studied it closely. “Damn.”
“That’s pretty sophisticated.” Mark’s assistant, the lanky Peter spoke up. “I checked it out on the web last night. That’s like… black bag stuff.”
“Mm.” Dar nodded agreement. “It sure is.” She looked up. “So, tell me why we didn’t catch a rogue MAC on the network?”
Peter stuck his hands in his pockets. Mark cleared his throat.
“Will you excuse us, please/” Dar looked at Peter. “And close the door on your way out.”
The tall man escaped gratefully, shutting the door and leaving them alone in the office.
Mark gave her a look that could easily have been one of Chinos, when caught stealing cookies from the closet. “It’s not an excuse.” He temporized. “But it’s that damn projector.. we’ve had it fixed like six times in the last four weeks.”
“So the guy told me last time, he thought it was the MAC blocking that was making it freak out.” Mark admitted.
“So you turned it off.”
“For that port, yeah.” The MIS chief agreed. “It fixed the problem.”
Dar folded her arms, then she walked over to Mark’s office window and looked out. “That’s a breech of our security policy.” She remarked quietly, keeping her eyes focused outward as there was no answer behind her. “Here I have Kerry beating herself up for not asking for a scan, and the fact is the room was left deliberately wide open.”
Mark shifted in his chair, the leather squeaking softly. “You… want my resignation?” He asked, in a somber voice. “It was my screwup, Dar. I took the security off that port, not one of my guys.”
Dar found a small boat to watch, as it skittered across the water. “What I’m more interested in right now is who knew you did it, other than you and the projector tech.”
Mark remained silent for a few moments. “I don’t know, boss. I didn’t tell anyone here.”
Dar turned and leaned against the window. “So – then either someone here just happened to see the change in the switch and got bought… or we have a problem with a vendor, because whoever put that..” She pointed viciously at the device. “Sure knew it.”
Mark relaxed just a trifle. “You think it was one of those Telegenics goons, right?”
Did she? It was tempting to. They were in the room, that was in the room, and no doubt about it, they had a motive. And yet… “That’s more tech than Shari’s capable of, and damn it, I think Michelle’s too ethical for it.”
“But you never know. Let’s start hunting.” Dar decided. She headed for the door, stopping as she reached it and turning. “No, I don’t want your damn resignation. I screwed up, Kerry screwed up, you screwed up… that’s it. We’ve exhausted our once in a blue moon big time. No more screwups.”
She walked out and shut the door behind her, leaving a slightly stunned Mark sitting at his desk in silence. After a moment the door cracked open again and Peter stuck his head warily inside. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Mark finally let his held breath out. “I think so. She’s just really pissed.” His brow creased. “I think.”
“Yeah.” Mark rested his chin on his fist. “But I can’t really tell who she’s more pissed at, the joker who stuck this on the network, or herself.”
Peter looked confused, then he slowly withdrew his head and shut the door again, leaving Mark to ponder the question alone.
“Kerry?” Mayte stuck her head around the corner of the door. “I have a fax for you.”
Kerry looked up from her pile of paperwork, one blond eyebrow cocking. “Nifty. I needed more paper on my desk. Bring it over.”
Mayte walked into the office and put the thick stack of paper down. “It is from the port, but I do not understand what this is.”
Kerry glanced at the cover sheet, and saw a somewhat crude rendition of a seal scrawled on the page. “Ah.” She tossed side her current list of ordering and pulled the stack over. “I do, and boy, we sure did nail down which of her folks Dar gets her doodling from.” She flipped through the pages, leaning a little closer to study the details. “Ah.” She repeated softly. “Interesting.”
Kerry looked up again. “Sorry, Mayte.. was there something else you needed from me?”
Her assistant fiddled with her hands, then she sat down in Kerry’s visitor chair. “Is it all right if I ask you something that is a little personal for me?”
Uh oh. “Sure.” Kerry pushed aside the fax and focused her attention. “What’s up?”
“Did you… I am sorry, this is very embarrassing, but.. did you know right away when you were liking la jefa?”
Liking? “Um.. well, not really.” Kerry replied very slowly. “If.. I mean, Mayte, are you asking me when I knew I was in love with Dar?”
Mayte turned brick red, even under her already well tanned skin. “Si.” She answered in a whisper.
“Boy, that’s a tough question.” Kerry frowned. “Because we came together in such an odd way.. with work and all. But.. you know, I will tell you this. I felt something in here.. ‘ Kerry touched her chest. “From the very minute I set eyes on her. I just didn’t know what that something was for a while.”
Mayte nodded slowly. “That does make very much sense.”
“Are you.. uh.. “ The blond woman hesitated. “Someone you’re interested in?” She finally asked, a touch awkwardly, then they both looked up as Kerry’s inner office door opened and Dar entered.
The blue eyes flicked to both women, and Dar paused. “Sorry. Didn’t meant to interrupt.” She said, retracing her steps.
“No no.. I was just leaving.” Mayte jumped up and raced out, closing the door quickly behind her.
Dar looked at the door, then looked at Kerry. Both eyebrows shot up.
“Beats me.” Kerry shook her head. “She was just asking me about how to know when you’re in love.”
“Uh oh.” Dar advanced again. “Someone catch her eye? Maria hasn’t said anything to me, at any rate.”
“I got the feeling yes.” Kerry pushed the fax over towards her. “Look what Dad sent… and did you talk to Mark? He gave me a rundown on the thing he found.. holy cow, Dar.”
Dar flipped through the pages, then looked up at Kerry. “What did you tell her?”
Green eyes blinked in confusion. “Huh? What did I tell who?”
Dar glanced out the window. “About how you know when you’re in love.” She peeked back at Kerry’s face, with a half abashed grin. “Or did I interrupt that part?”
“Oh.” Kerry leaned back. “Yeah, I think you sorta did.” She pondered, twiddling her thumbs together. “Probably a good thing… I don’t think my going into racing heartbeats and sweating palms would do anything for our professional rapport.”
“Probably not.” Dar’s face eased into a smile.
“Though I did tell her I knew the second I met you.” Kerry smiled back. “I’m not sure why she ran out of here like that, though.” She idly stifled a yawn. “Was it something I said?”
Dar took a seat on the edge of Kerry’s desk, regarding her with a faintly amused expression.
“Stop it.” Kerry punched her in the leg. “Don’t start with that crush stuff again, Dar. The last thing on earth she’d be asking me if she really had a crush was the question she just asked. Right?”
The taller woman shrugged one shoulder.
Kerry made a face. “You really think so?”
“I really do.” Dar replied. “But I don’t think you’ve got much to worry about – she knows you’re taken.”
Now it was Kerry’s eyes that twinkled. “Now that’s the truth.” She leaned her head back against her leather chair. “I’m looking forward to class tonight… you going to be out of your meeting in time?”
Dar had been studying the fax. Now she dropped it lightly onto Kerry’s desk and stood. “Yep.” She indicated the papers. “Not sure what that gets us, besides what they’re paying for the standard gear. Nice of dad to send it though. Wonder why he had them?”
“Yeah.” Kerry twiddled her thumbs. “At least I know we’re paying less than they are. Volume has to count for something, eh?” She pushed the fax with her index finger. “What did you think of that thing Mark found?”
Dar had wandered over to the window and was gazing outside. “Slick.”
Kerry waited, but Dar offered nothing else on the subject. “Okay.” She leaned forward and went back to her mail, recognizing a rebuff when she felt one. “Guess I’ll leave that in your ballpark. Mine’s busy.” She put her head down and concentrated on the screen, trying not to become hyper aware of the figure standing behind her.
She knew Dar was looking at her, though. She could feel it, feel the impact of those blue eyes on the back of her head even before she heard the soft rustle of fabric as Dar turned. She heard the light scuff of her footsteps against the carpet, and against her will, she found herself straining to figure out if they were coming closer or leaving.
“I really don’t know what to think.” Dar’s voice sounded unexpectedly loud in the office.
Kerry continued typing. “Well, I’m sure you’ll handle it.”
Dar resumed her perch on Kerry’s desk, making it very difficult to continue to ignore her. Kerry tried, but after a moment she felt a nudge against her shoulder, and it was either look up, or really escalate her miffed feelings into a fight.
Did she want a fight? Kerry swiveled a little and rested her chin on her fist, gazing up at her partner. No. She never really did want to fight, it was just that sometimes their differences pushed them in opposite directions until they clashed. “Yees?”
“Was I being a bitch?” Dar asked.
Kerry shrugged one shoulder.
“I wasn’t trying to be.” The dark haired woman admitted. “That thing Mark found’s got me confused.”
Kerry’s phone rang, and she gave it an evil look. She hit her intercom button. “Mayte, can you get that please? I’m in an important meeting right now.”
“Si, of course.” Mayte answered back promptly, then clicked off.
Kerry returned her attention to her partner. “What’s confusing you, honey? Was it more than you expected it to be? Mark showed me the details.. it was pretty sophisticated.”
Dar sighed. “It was pretty sophisticated.” She admitted, running her fingers through her hair in some distraction. “Ker, I know you want to think it was Shari and Michelle, but I..”
“You don’t’ think so? Really? C’mon, Dar.. who else could it be?” Kerry almost laughed. “I mean, let’s be real. We have our worst enemies right here in the building, I leave them unsupervised for a half hour, and a couple days later we get hit with an internal probe.” She put a hand on Dar’s leg. “Honey.”
Her partner exhaled. “So now you know why I didn’t want to talk about it.” She got up and headed for her office, shaking her head. “Just forget it. Yeah, it was probably them.”
“B..” Kerry got up and chased after her. “Dar! Wait a minute…” She caught up to her at the inner door and gently took hold of her arm. “Hey..hey…hey..”
Dar stopped, but there was a perceptible pause before she turned, and when she did, her expression was dour. “What?”
As their relationship progressed, Kerry had learned bit by bit just what worked with Dar and what didn’t. She had no idea what the heck was going on with her, but she knew enough to know that attempting to placate her at this point would do exactly jack squat. “Okay.”
“Okay what?” Dar repeated, but in a slightly modified tone.
“Okay, we’ve both already cycled this month, and it’s not a full moon. So let’s blow this office and get some lunch.” Kerry said. “Somewhere outside this building.”
Dar hesitated, then she wrinkled her nose up and clucked her tongue. “I’m in a really pissy mood. You don’t want to have lunch with me. Maybe I should just go to the corner and get a hot dog.” She said. “Last person I want to wrangle with is you.”
Kerry bumped her gently. “C’mon.” She replied softly. “We’ll talk about the new fish tank.” She looked up into Dar’s eyes, watching the strong planes of her partner’s face shift a little as some of the storm clouds faded. “I’m sorry if I rubbed you the wrong way.. I didn’t mean to.”
Dar scowled, but it was one of her more engaging ones. “S’allright. I didn’t mean to be a touchy whiny ass this morning.” She eased closer, exhaling as her body relaxed. “Lunch sounds great. You can try and talk me into those boxing crabs.” She gave Kerry a gentle pat on the side. “Let me go close my machine down, and we can take off.”
Kerry stepped back and watched as she left, her own body relaxing from the tension she always felt in the times when they disagreed. “Thank god it doesn’t happen often.” She turned and went back to her desk, hitting her intercom button as she sat down. “Mayte? Was that anything critical? C’mon in.”
After a moment, the outer door opened, and Mayte poked her head in, then entered, crossing over to Kerry’s desk. “It was Mr. Jose. He has a gigantic problem with something in Los Angeles.” She handed over a piece of paper with some notes. “I wrote down what it is he said, but he wants to talk to you.”
Kerry reviewed the notes. “Well, he’s going to have to wait until after lunch.” She decided. “Dar’s in a mood, and I’m going to work on getting her out of it. Let him know I’ll be up to his office when I get back.”
Mayte blinked at her. “Si.” She agreed softly. “I will do that. And thank you before, Kerry, for your advice. It is appreciated.”
“No problem.” Kerry smiled. “Good luck.”
Mayte smiled back, then left.
Kerry leaned back and studied the closed door. “Nah.’ She shook her head. “It’s not me.” With a click, she locked her computer screen, and headed off to wrangle fish.
It was like something exploding against her head. One moment she was spinning into a defensive kick block, the next the world was turning over around her and the floor was coming up way to fast, at a very wrong angle.
“Ker!” Dar dropped her hands and bolted, ducking under the arm of her startled sparring partner. Kerry’s body had barely hit the mat before she was dropping to a knee at her side, reaching for the arm Kerry had curled around her head.
“Jesus! I’m really sorry!” Kerry’s sparring partner also knelt, looking mortified. “Man, I didn’t meant to kick you like that!”
“Ow.. not your fault.” Kerry hissed. “I stepped into it.. damn.. that hurt.” She half rolled back over, recognizing the arms closing around her. “I’m used to someone taller.”
“Easy.” Dar pulled her hand away. “Let me see.”
“Ahh.. Dr. Dar.” Kerry turned her head slightly, her face only half visible under her foam protective gear. “I think his boot..”
“Got you right in the eye.” Dar winced.
Several other students gathered around, with concerned expressions. The teacher came over, crouching down next to them with a frown. “What happened?”
Dar eased the head protector off, pushing Kerry’s sweaty blond locks back to reveal an angry, red patch starting above her right eyebrow and extending across her eye to her cheek bone The eye itself was closed, moisture leaking from the inside corner. “Oh, boy.”
Kerry reached up, then let her hand fall when Dar gently took hold of her face. “We were going through that new roundhouse kick, and I turned the wrong way.” She said. “Ow.”
‘That’s gonna bruise.” One of the other students said, in a sympathetic voice. “You should get some ice on it.”
“Yeah.” The instructor agreed. “I think you should, too.” He glanced across the training room. “We are done here, anyway, I was about to call practice.”
“Me, three.” Dar responded promptly. “C’mon, Ker.”
Not really wanting to be picked up and carried, Kerry carefully rolled onto her side, then got her knees under her. She was glad of Dar’s steadying hand, though, because when she tried to open her eye, the stinging tears made her promptly shut it again.
It hurt like hell. She got to her feet, with Dar’s hands firmly grasping her wrist and upper arm and stood a moment, getting her balance. “Jesus, that hurts.”
Dar made a small noise, which Kerry recognized immediately. She took a deep breath and steadied herself, straightening up and giving her partner a pat on the side. “Okay, give me a second to catch my breath, then we can head for the icebox.”
“I think we should detour.” Dar said, tilting Kerry’s head up to the light, and looking at the forming bruise. “I’d like Dr. Steve to take a look at that.”
“That’s a very good idea.” Don, the instructor interjected. “I think Dar is right. You should go, also, because it worries me that someone should get hurt in my class.”
“God, I’m so sorry.” Kerry’s sparring partner repeated. “Kerry, I don’t think you moved wrong, I think I did. I was supposed to go right.”
Kerry felt a headache coming on, and her eye was stinging badly now. She didn’t want to have to go to the doctor, but she didn’t want to stand there arguing either. “Okay.” She nodded. “Let’s go.” She let Dar guide her to the locker room, and sat quietly as her partner unlaced her gloves and removed them.
“That’s gonna hurt.” Dar muttered. “Son of a bitch.”
“He didn’t do it on purpose, hon.” Kerry felt the headache getting worse, and she didn’t object when Dar took her by the shoulders and eased her up onto her feet, so she could strip the workout gear off her body. “I’m going to have a black eye, aren’t I?”
Dar cupped her face in both hands. “Oh yeah.” She informed her regretfully. “Can you open that eye?” She watched as a sliver of very bloodshot white and a bit of green appeared. “Can you see?”
Kerry closed her other eye and blinked a few times, then nodded. “Yeah, it just hurts.” She reassured Dar. “I think I just need a cold compress.” She paused. “Or maybe the old fashioned cure.. a chilled piece of roast beef.”
Dar managed a short laugh. “I think it’s supposed to be raw sirloin.” She tossed Kerry’s gear into her locker, and handed her a tshirt. “Slip that on. Let me get this junk off me.”
Kerry eased the shirt over her head as Dar stripped out of her own gear and rid herself of her sweat drenched shirt, pulling a gray heather tank top over her sports bra. “Hey, Dar?”
Dar turned and faced her. “Hm?”
“You’re really sexy when you’re grubby. How do you do that?”
Her partner looked carefully around, then back at her. “Are you trying to distract me from taking you to the doctor?”
“Me?” Kerry eased her small duffel over her shoulder. “Would I do that? No. I was just making an observation.” She meekly followed Dar from the locker room, tangling her fingers in the waistband of her partner’s shorts as the throbbing in her head intensified.
Maybe going to the doctor wasn’t a bad idea after all.
“Look up, kiddo.”
Kerry did her best, squinting at Dr. Steve through her half open eye, now puffy with swelling and very tender.
Dr. Steve clucked his tongue. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you kids. Can’t you take up something like bowling? What’s all this chop socky stuff, anyway?”
“It’s more fun than bowling.” Kerry protested faintly. “Honest. I don’t usually get my noggin kicked.”
She was lying on her back on the examining table, still fully clothed against the mostly darkened office’s chill. Dar was huddled on a stool next to the foot of the table, her arms leaning on the leather as she watched Dr. Steve like a hawk.
“Uh huh. Likely story.” The doctor said. “Except I’ve been patching up old blue eyes down there since she was a tot and she still don’t have the sense to take up croquet after all these years.” He touched the side of Kerry’s face gently. “Well, chipmunk, you’ve got a real nice bruise there, but it doesn’t look like anything’s permanently broken.”
“Mmph.” Kerry grunted in some relief. “My head hurts.”
“I’m sure it does.” Dr. Steve chuckled. “You were lucky you had you some styrofoam over your face, or you’d have broken that cute little nose, I’m thinking. As it is, you just need a bag of ice, and some TLC.” He turned and looked at Dar. “You’ll take care of that, right?”
Dar propped her chin up on her fist, and managed a half grin. “Yeah, I think I can handle that.”
“You think?” Kerry nudged her with one knee. “Tell you what, you can walk around with me at work and explain why I look like I had a run in with the Ultimate fighting squad tomorrow. Otherwise I’ll have to wear a sign around my neck.”
“Sugar, if you still got that headache, stay out of that office tomorrow.” Dr. Steve advised. “You didn’t break anything, but if you hang around in there getting your blood pressure up, it’ll just make for a worse bruise.” He leaned on the table with both hands and studied Kerry. “Speaking of which, let me get a check on that little old thing.”
Kerry tried to relax her body fully as she waited for him to come back with the pressure cuff, not really worried, but not really confident either. She’d been watching herself lately, making sure she laid off the salt, and avoiding too much caffeine, but she wasn’t sure the recent aggravation wouldn’t show up on Dr. Steve’s annoyingly accurate cuff meter.
She’d been borderline on her last examination, much better than before she’d gone on vacation, but still not in a range either the doctor or she felt comfortable with for a normal baseline. Now, after having to go through the stress of the bid, she was sure it was going to be at least as bad.
Hopefully not worse. With a little sigh, she glanced down at Dar. The taller woman was looking back at her with a wry sympathy, and they exchanged brief grins.
She felt Dar’s fingers curl around her lower leg, and a gentle stroking start up on the inside of her knee. A surprising tension eased from her, and she watched in almost benign regard as the cuff was fitted around her arm and the tension increased.
It tightened further, held, then relaxed after a few seconds. “Very nice.” Dr. Steve pronounced. “You’ve been being a good girl, I see.”
Faintly surprised, Kerry managed a nod. “Trying to.” She agreed. “Glad it’s working.”
The doctor patted her shoulder comfortingly. “You keep it up, Kerry. I don’t want to have to be your whiny old doctor too frequently.” He turned and glanced at Dar. “Okay, take this little prizefighter home and put her to bed.”
Dar unwound her long legs from the stool and stood up, visibly relieved. “Don’t worry, I will.” She promised. “Anything we can do for that except ice?”
“Nope.” Dr. Steve turned and studied the X-ray he had taken of Kerry’s skull, reviewing it one last time. He ran a finger over the bony ridge around Kerry’s eye and leaned closer. “It’s fine, honey. Just a black eye that’s gonna drive her nuts for a few days.”
“I’ll live.” Kerry sat up and hopped off the table. “Hey, I’ve never had a black eye before. Have you?” She asked her partner.
“Yes.” Both Dar and Dr. Steve answered at once. Dar gave her old family friend a slit eyed look, but then just chuckled and shook her head.
“This scrappy little thing had more fights as a tyke than a Chihuahua in a pack of Dobermans.” Dr. Steve said. “Wasn’t a week she wasn’t in here with something or other.. broken arm, broken ankle.. cracked skull, you name it. Ran out of lollipops one week when she’d been here three times.”
Dar put her hands on her hips. “C’mon. I wasn’t that bad.”
“Honey, your files are right in there.” Dr. Steve pointed. “I don’t make this stuff up.”
Kerry put her arms around Dar and gave her a hug. “C’mon. You can tell me all about your fearless battles while I put that steak on my eye.”
Dar returned the hug, kissing the top of Kerry’s head affectionately, then pausing in mild embarrassment as Dr. Steve chuckled and shook his head. After a moment’s frown, she shrugged one shoulder and hugged Kerry again, patting her back gently. “How about we get that steak cooked, and use my gel pack instead. It’s less messy, and Chino won’t be trying to eat it off your face.”
“Okay.” Kerry agreed. “Whatever you say, babe. You’re in charge.”
Dr. Steve walked them out to the front room, where the lights were mostly out and the building silent. When they reached the door, Dar clapped her old friend on the arm. “Thanks for meeting us. I appreciate it.”
“Anytime, Dar.” The doctor patted her on the back, and carefully ruffled Kerry’s hair. “You take care of her, okay?”
“Always.” Kerry answered before Dar could. “Thanks, Dr. Steve.” She released her partner, and gave their doctor a brief hug. “Take care.”
“You too, Kerry.” The older man responded, holding the door open for them. “Drive safe, eh?”
“I will.” Dar promised, as they walked out into the tropical night, and headed for home.
Not long after, Kerry found herself laying on their leather couch, the promised gel pack draped over the side of her face as she listened to Dar accept their dinner delivery at the door. Her head was still hurting, but the pain had at least reached a plateau and the rest of her body was far more comfortable, nestled into the plush surface nicely warmed to her skin.
She’d never had a black eye before, and from her brief glimpse in the mirror before Dar pointedly steered her towards the couch, she’d certainly started off with a doozy of one. The bruise extended all around her eye and halfway across her cheekbone and it was a little scary looking.
She wasn’t looking forward to explaining it to everyone. It reminded her suddenly of a classmate of hers in college, who’d gotten involved in some chancy business her boyfriend was doing and went crossways of him
Sarah, her name had been, Kerry recalled. She’d come to class one day with a huge black eye, and explained it away with a laugh as an accident when she’d been taking something out of the refrigerator.
No one had believed her. Everyone thought the boyfriend had beaten her up. Kerry sighed, and shrugged a shoulder. At least everyone knew she did martial arts, so it would be more embarrassing than anything else especially since she didn’t have a criminally inclined boyfriend.
“All right.” Dar settled next to her on the edge of the couch, setting something down on the table. “How’s it feeling?”
Just an endearingly overprotective spouse. “Ucky.” Kerry responded honestly. “Dar, I look like a poster child for the anti-boxing league.” She reached up to touch the ice pack. “Freaky.”
“Nah.” Dar unwrapped their dinner.
“Yes, I do.” Kerry draped one hand over her partner’s thigh. “What’d you get?”
“Open up and you’ll find out.”
Obediently, Kerry opened her mouth and waited, biting down instinctively when something was placed inside it. She chewed and swallowed, then smiled. “Mm. Orange chicken.” She was happy to taste a favorite of hers.
“Yeah, I figured it would be easier for you to chew than a sirloin.” Dar touched the side of Kerry’s face gently. “You said it was a little sore here.”
“Mm.” Kerry moved her jaw from side to side slightly. “Yeah, it is. What else you got?”
Dar lifted the cool pack momentarily, then set it back down a little to one side. Despite her casual dismissal, the bruise did look horrific, and the green eye under the compress was swollen almost shut. “Green beans and chipotle polenta.”
“Ah, Spicy grits.” Kerry started to ease up onto her elbow. “My favorite.”
“Lie down.” Dar took hold of her shoulders and pressed her back down. “Let that ice pack do its thing.” She waited until Kerry complied, then went back to arranging the plates. There was no real easy way for her to accomplish her task of getting her ailing partner fed, but then, she was never much into doing things the easy way anyway, so improvisation was in order.
Carefully, she lifted the plate up, then hoisted herself up and over Kerry’s legs to settle between her partner and the back of the couch.
“Mm.” Agreeably, Kerry squirmed over a little, giving Dar more space as she felt the plate settle on her stomach.
“There.” Dar propped her head up on her hand, working the fork with the other as she selected a piece of chicken. “How’s that?” She rumbled, right into Kerry’s nearby ear.
Kerry merely grinned as a response. She’d taken some Advil and she had her ice pack, but there was something about having Dar this close that beat both of those hollow. She accepted the chicken, then sighed. “I still can’t believe I was that stupid.”
“Well, I was.”
“He moved wrong, you didn’t.” Dar argued.
“You’re just saying that.” Kerry picked up a green bean and nibbled it. “You didn’t even see it happen, did you?”
“I know you didn’t do it wrong.” Dar stubbornly insisted. “That guy’s a nitwad. He’s got the reflexes of a gumby.” She grumbled. “I should have kicked his ass in the last round, and maybe..”
“Dar, Dar, Dar.” Kerry tapped her partner on the head. “Stop that.” She dropped her hand to Dar’s neck and kneaded the back of it. “Tell me about how you ended up in Dr. Steve’s office so much, huh? Take my mind off this?”
Dar offered her a forkful of polenta. “I scrapped.” She admitted briefly. “I fought with anything that got in my way and it didn’t matter how much bigger than me they were.” Her eyebrows twitched a little. “And I was a little accident prone.”
“I find that very hard to believe. You’re disgustingly graceful.”
Dar chuckled wryly. “Now, most of the time, sure.” She said. “But I grew six inches between sixth grade and seventh. I gave myself concussions just getting in and out of the damn truck.” She offered another green bean. “Wasn’t pretty.”
“Hm.” Kerry regarded the long body fitted against hers. “I guess sometimes short has its moments. I think the most I grew in any year was about… an inch, maybe.” She reached up and traced Dar’s cheekbone. “But I bet you were pretty anyway.”
Dar shook her head negatively.
“Yes.” A thumb traced across the well shaped lips. “I’ve seen pictures, Dar. Don’t give me that icky face.”’ Kerry remembered one in particular, a full length shot of Dar at thirteen or fourteen, in shorts and a dirt covered tshirt, long dark hair half obscuring her face, but not the sharp blue eyes peeking out or the hesitant half grin that surely identified the camera holder as her father.
Gorgeous. Even then, Dar’s face had been distinctively unique and the smudge of mud across her cheek only amplified the character of it.
“Kerry?” Dar whispered into her ear. “Hello? Earth to Kerry?”
“Sorry honey.” Kerry felt the pounding in her head beginning to subside. “I just so absolutely love you I can’t help drifting off into dreamy hazes sometimes.” She turned her head so her unobscured eye could meet her partner’s.
Dar was blinking at her, an expression of somewhat puzzled pleasure on her face. “Really?”
Kerry traced her fingertips over Dar’s lips again, and nodded. “Thanks for taking care of me.” She felt a smile tug at her mouth. “And I think you’re right. He did go the wrong way. I just wish I could have stopped in time so I didn’t hit his foot.”
Dar lifted the ice pack, and leaned forward, brushing her lips over the injured area before she replaced the gel again. “I’ll kick his ass next week for it” She promised solemnly. “And then I’ll teach you how to duck.”
Kerry exhaled in satisfaction, putting her accident behind her for the moment. “Hey. I’ve got an idea.” She burred softly. “How about I wear a patch over my eye tomorrow.. kinda like a pirate?”
Dar chuckled soundlessly.
“Arrrr…. Avast ye mateys!”
Dar dropped into her seat, glancing at the clock on the wall in some mild embarrassment. She shook her head, then leaned forward and hit the intercom. “Maria, what the hell’s on my schedule today?”
“Uno momento, Dar. I will be right there.” Maria answered promptly.
“Hope it wasn’t anything that started at eight.” Dar remarked to the empty office. Both she and Kerry had fallen asleep together on the couch, and woken abruptly at eight, realizing they’d forgotten any kind of alarm.
Kerry’s ice pack was a sloshy warmish pack by then, and it had slipped down off her face, revealing a still swollen and tender area underneath. Her eye was mostly closed, and Dar didn’t have much trouble in convincing her to stay home and relax once she’d seen her reflection in the mirror.
So here she was at just past nine, trying to collect the scattered threads of her day after it’s late start and hoping she hadn’t missed anything really critical. Dar folded her hands as Maria entered, carrying a pad of paper, and gave her assistant a wry grin. “Morning.”
“Good morning, Dar.” Maria sat down. “Is Kerrista all right? Mayte said that she would not be here today.”
Dar sighed. “We had an accident at kickboxing class last night. Kerry got bopped in the head, so I made her stay home. It’s not that bad, but she looks like she was beaned in the eye with a baseball.”
“Dios Mio!” Maria exclaimed. “That poor thing!”
“Yeah.” Her boss agreed. “Wish I was…” She paused awkwardly. “Anyway, what’s on the schedule? Did I miss something already this morning?”
Maria smiled at her, and looked down at her pad. “Ah, no, no. There is a meeting after lunch today, with the gentleman from AT and T, and a conference call for you at four for the international.”
Rats. Dar sighed again. The four oclock international call tended to last forever, and she… “Okay.” She cut off her thoughts abruptly, reminding herself she was actually a corporate officer here. “Thanks, Maria.. let me get to work in the damn inbox. Tell Mayte to forward any calls for Kerry over here to me.”
“Yes, I surely will.” Maria stood up. “Would you like some coffee, Dar?”
“Do I look like I need it?” Dar replied with rakish grin. “Yeah, sure.”
“I will be right back.” The older woman said. “While you are getting your things ready.”
Dar watched her leave, then she gave her trackball a spin, bringing up her inbox in the hope it would keep her occupied and not wishing she was at home.
One note caught her eye, and she opened it, scanning the contents quickly. Her fingers drummed lightly on the keys, then she hit reply and answered.
Hoping Kerry would forgive her for it.
There were a lot of things Kerry knew she could be doing. However, she was curled up in their waterbed with the blinds drawn, listening to an audio book playing softly in the CD player instead. Her eye was still swollen shut, and trying to read anything, much less her laptop screen just wasn’t working for her.
So she’d retired to their bedroom instead, keeping her laptop nearby for mail purposes, but simply laying there in the comfortable air conditioning with her other eye closed as well.
It felt good to just chill out. Kerry felt a little guilty as well, but not enough for her to get up and do anything about it.
Chino came over and rested her jaw on the edge of the waterbed, snuffling at Kerry’s slack hand until she reached over to scratch the Labrador’s head. She licked Kerry’s fingers, then hopped up onto the waterbed, making the surface move as she picked a spot and curled up against her owner’s body.
Kerry sighed contentedly, taking in a breath and catching Dar’s scent, still clinging to the pillow her arm was wrapped around. She was a little surprised when the phone rang, but reached over and snagged it, cradling it between her shoulder and ear. “Hello?”
“Hey, Ker!” Colleen’s voice sounded through the phone. “You there?”
“Um.” Kerry cleared her throat. “You called my home number, and I answered, didn’t I?”
“Ah, heh. Yeah.” Her friend said. “So, what’s the deal? I heard you got hurt?”
Kerry snorted softly into the phone. “Yeah… I was a klutz last night in kickboxing class. The guy I was sparring with slipped and kicked me in the head.”
“Oh, Jesus!” Colleen blurted. “So it was some guy? Not Dar?”
“Dar?” Kerry chuckled. “Of course not. She’s got more control than the damn instructor.” She paused. “Why?”
“Well, that makes more sense.” Colleen replied. “No, it was just how I heard it – for some reason it sounded like it was Dar who’d been involved.. boy, she must have been pissed.”
“To put it mildly.” Kerry felt her brow crinkle as she reviewed her friend’s words. “She took me to the doctor, had my head xrayed, cursed the dumbass who clocked me, and then rocked me to sleep on the couch last night… I can only imagine what she’d have done if it’d been her.”
“Aw.” Colleen’s smile could clearly be heard through the phone. “She’s such a sweetie.”
Kerry relaxed. “Yeah.” She sighed. “So, anyway, I’ve got this black eye and I can’t hardly read a screen. Dar made me stay home with it.”
“Darn right.” Colleen stated. “You need anything? I’ve got to go pick up my car so I’m leaving early… I could stop by.”
“Nah, I’m fine.” Kerry reassured her. “Listen, do me a favor? Make sure whoever’s talking about what happened gets the story straight… if Dar hears people thinking it’s her, she’s going to have a heart attack.”
“No problem, girl.” Her friend said. “You leave it to me.”
Kerry sighed. “God damn it.”
Her temper flared. “Why in the hell would anyone think she’d done it? That really pisses me off.”
The phone crackled a little, as though Colleen had shifted or moved. “Hey, hey, relax.” She said, in a lower tone. “Listen, I don’t think anyone though it was on purpose, Kerry. Just an accident, you know?”
“Bullshit.” Kerry rolled over and scowled at the ceiling.
“Kerry.” Colleen replied. “Would you take it easy? Honest, no one was mean. It was just.. I don’t know, I guess people thought it was kind of funny that..”
“FUNNY?” Kerry growled. “There is nothing funny at all about it. Even if it had been Dar, it wouldn’t have been funny. People getting hurt is funny? Me getting hurt is funny? Wow. Nice.”
There was no answer for a few seconds, then Colleen sighed. “That’s not what I meant.”
Kerry plucked at the soft down comforter draped over the bed. “Yeah, I know. It’s not your fault.” She admitted. “I just really hate when people talk bull, especially about her.”
Colleen cleared her throat, then chuckled. “Well, I do know that, Kerry me lass. That’s how I knew you were falling for her way back when. You nearly took me head off when I dared to call her a rude name.”
Had she? Kerry studied the plaster ceiling, a faint smile tugging at her lips. Yeah, she had. Even at the very beginning, after she and Dar had bumped heads just once or twice, she’d started defending her. Many of her co-workers had thought, and probably still did, that she was just sucking up.
Maybe even she thought that, back then, or maybe it was just survival. But the instinct to protect Dar had kicked in very, very early. “Yeah.” She said. “Sorry, Col. It’s just a button of mine.” She continued. “And it really hurts, especially after how sweet Dar was last night.. I felt like I was being swaddled in silk. Don’t even get me started on this morning.”
“No problem, girl.” Colleen sounded happier. “Listen, let me go finish up a report I’ve got due.. I’ll give you a buzz later, okay?”
“Sure.” Kerry agreed. “Thanks for calling, Col.” She hung up the phone, her relaxed mood gone despite her reassuring words to her friend. “Man, that does really piss me off.” She reached over to scratch Chino’s ears. “Why do people do that, Chi? Why can’t they just be nice?”
“Growf.” Chino licked her fingers and snuggled closer again.
Kerry regarded the ceiling for a few moments more, then she reached over and hit the speakerphone, dialing Dar’s private office number without looking. It was answered after two rings. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Dar’s voice sounded reasonably chipper. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a grumpy warthog.” Kerry said. “What’s going on there?”
A soft creaking came through the phone, surely Dar taking a seat in her leather chair and leaning back. “I’m going to be interviewed in about a half hour.” She said. “Mark’s still trying to track that damn device down, we’ve been hit by a dozen more attacks, and we’re out of milk in the cafeteria.” She paused. “So, how’s your day been so far?”
Poised on the verge of spilling her concerns, Kerry hesitated, hearing the stress in her partner’s voice. “Boring.” She said instead. “I can’t really use my laptop, so me and Chi are just lying in bed, listening to Modern Trends in Network Design.”
“Ah. Light reading.” Dar chuckled softly under her breath. “You could go watch Animal Planet… how’s your headache?”
“Better.” Kerry felt slightly foolish at bothering her busy partner. “Listen, sorry to interrupt.. I was just.. um… “ She paused. “Anyway, why are you being interviewed?”
“Ah.” Dar grunted, a wry disgust very evident in her tone. “Fallout from that god damn Telegenics glory hunting with Discovery Channel or whoever the hell that is. Now this woman from the Washington Post wants to talk to me.”
“Oo. Make sure she takes a pretty picture for
the front page.” Kerry teased. “Given what they usually have to put up, getting
their hands on you will be a definitely pleasant change.
“Pfft.” Dar made a rude noise.
“Same to you.” Kerry replied. “Hey, let me let you get back to work. I’m going to laze around here for a while, then maybe catch some sun outside on the porch.” She stretched a little. “Talk to you later?”
“Absolutely.” Dar answered warmly. “And you weren’t bothering me. I’m glad you called.”
Kerry smiled as she hung up the line, but the smile faded after a moment and she rolled up out of bed and sat on the edge of it, leaning her elbows on her knees. After she stared at the floor a minute with her good eye, she pushed herself to her feet and trudged into the bathroom.
She didn’t really want to look in the mirror, but she did anyway, watching her face twist into a grimace as she examined her reflection. Around her eye, almost in a perfect circle, was a dark, mottled bruise that would have almost been comical if it hadn’t hurt as much as it did.
Her eye was puffy and half closed, but that at least was an improvement over what it had been last night. With a sigh, Kerry used the restroom, then she wandered into the living room as Chino jumped off the couch and joined her.
Now that she was stirred up, the thought of lying in bed was almost intolerable. Instead, Kerry went into the kitchen and put up some herbal tea, stifling a yawn as she opened the refrigerator to find herself something to nibble on.
Removing a bottle of juice, she poured herself a glass and replaced it, turning in surprise when she heard a soft knock at the door. “Now, who the heck could that be?” She asked, following Chino into the living room as the Labrador bounded ahead to guard the door for her. “Oh, pooters. Must have forgotten to tell Clemente not to come in today.”
She went to the door and opened it, not bothering to check the peep hole first. “Oh.” She blinked in surprised, finding not the stocky hospitality manager but Ceci outside. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Ceci had her hands behind her back, and was looking quite diffident. “Can I come in?”
“Sure.” Kerry backed up and let her past. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone… but you’re always welcome.”
“Mmhm.” The diminutive woman strolled past. “Remember that after you find out why I’m here.”
“Uh oh.” Kerry half chuckled. “Want some tea?”
Dar’s mother nodded. “Love some. Nice shiner you have there.” She came closer and examined Kerry’s face. “Don’t’ supposed I can talk you two into croquet or something equally benign instead, huh?”
“Ah. So you know all about what happened, huh?”
“Dar send you here?” Kerry hazarded.
“Mmhm.” Ceci nodded. “Me being the only mother she knows in the area, yes. She asked me to come over here and practice my non-existent maternal skills on you.” She gave Kerry a wry grin. “So why not let me get the tea, and you rest your head so I can say I tried. Hm?”
Kerry walked over to the couch and sat down, extended her legs along the it’s length. “Sure.” She agreed amiably. ‘I’ll get her back later.”
Ceci gave her a big thumbs up, then disappeared into the kitchen.
“You little stinker wench.” Kerry addressed the ceiling. “I will get you later. Just wait.” She reached for the remote control and flipped on the television, picking a channel at random and settling back to watch.
Ah well. It could be worse. Kerry eyed the door to the kitchen It could be my mother.
The reporter entered behind Maria, and followed her over to Dar’s desk. She was a tall, poised black woman with striking good looks, and she met Dar’s firm handshake with one of her own before she took the proffered seat.
“Thanks, Maria.” Dar returned to her chair and dropped into it. “So, Ms. Cruickshank, what is it you’d like to talk about?” She leaned back and steepled her fingers, watching the reporter as she settled herself in her chair and took out a notepad.
Notepad. Dar’s eyebrow twitched. The last few times she’d been interviewed, it’d been with at the very least, a tape recorder. It was interesting that the reporter had chosen to stick with the basics in the local headquarters of one of the most highly technical companies in the world.
“What would I like to talk about?” The reporter repeated, in a quietly cordial tone. “Well, Ms. Roberts, as you may know, some of my colleagues are working very hard to make a documentary about Peter Quest’s effort to re-establish American cruising.” She studied her pad, then looked up at Dar. “Everyone keeps trying to cast you as the bad guy.”
Dar smiled cheerfully at her.
“Are you the bad guy?” The woman asked. “From the research I’ve done, your image wanders from Cruella DeVil, to Joan of Arc, depending on the time of day and phase of the moon or who I’ve talked to.” She leaned forward a little. “So what’s the real scoop?”
Joan of Arc??? Dar’s eyes widened a trifle. “I’m not sure there is a scoop.” She replied. “I’m just here to do a job. I don’t employ any bizarre tactics, just decent business sense, and the time I invest in acquainting myself with the newest in technology.”
Cruickshank scribbled a note. “Well, let me tell you what I’ve got here on you, and then you can tell me if you still think you’re not a news item.” She flipped a page over. “You’re a Florida native.”
“Mm.” Dar gave an agreeable grunt. “That’s pretty newsworthy, I guess.”
The reporter smiled. “So I hear. You grew up on Navy bases, right?”
“You’ve only worked for one company, that being this one, and you joined ILS when you were… fifteen?”
Dar nodded again. “I think that makes me more boring than scoop.” She remarked. “I never saw any reason to change companies – I just kept changing jobs within this one.”
The reporter made another note. “Do you like your job?” She studied Dar’s face. “The one you have now, I mean?”
For a moment, Dar almost considered answering honestly, then she reviewed the issue and realized there were some things even she couldn’t get away with. “Most of the time, yes.” She finally responded. “I can do without publicity seeking monkeys trying to make me look bad every couple of hours, but in general, yeah. I like what I do.”
Cruickshank looked intrigued. “Is that what you consider your competitors? Publicity seeking monkeys?”
“Well.” Dar met her gaze squarely. “I can tell you I’ve never asked a news crew to hang off my ass during any of my business deals. I’ve also never rigged a convention for failure so I could come in and save the day to make press, or tried to bug my rivals.”
The reporter straightened up and looked really intrigued. “Some people would say that’s just smart competition.”
“Some people are morons.” Dar replied. “I find it easier just to be very good at what I do, and save the fun and games for the weekends.”
They looked at each other for a moment, then the reporter grinned. “You know what, Ms. Roberts?”
Dar raised her eyebrows in question.
“You’re my kind of bad guy.” The black woman told her. “Can I buy you lunch?”
Dar was peculiar about lunch. She liked to either grab something at her desk, or, if Kerry was there and not busy, have lunch with her. It was a chance to wind down for a few minutes in either case and de-stress in the middle of the day.
However, since Kerry wasn’t here, and this was at least an opportunity to make an impression other than dark awful on the whole ship project, Dar decided she’d make an exception. “Sure.” She agreed. “You’ll get out easy. The rest of your bunch has to spend whole days with my competition.”
The woman chuckled. “Now, as a professional journalist, I have to keep neutral, Ms. Roberts, so I certainly can’t pass along to you any of the comments of my colleagues.” She paused, and let the words simply saunter off with their meaning fully intact. “But I’m sure we can find something else to discuss.”
Dar checked the time on the computer screen. “Probably, but it needs to be now, because I’ve got conferences starting in an hour and a half.” She got up, pausing only to type a quick message and send it. “What’s your poison?”
“Anything.” The reporter responded promptly.
Dar looked up, with a devilish grin. She watched the woman wince.
“Oh, I should not have said that.” Cruickshank mourned. “I just know I’m going to end up regretting it. The one thing everyone agrees on is that you have a very twisted sense of humor.”
“Nah.” Dar gestured towards the door. “Most people think I don’t have one at all.” She locked her PC and came around the desk. “There’s a sushi place next door that’s fast and something less than noisy.”
“Phew.” The reporter followed her out. “I decided to try a little place near my hotel yesterday and boy did I end up regretting it. I think the grease inside was older than I am.”
Dar held the door, then went out after her. “Sounds like a place I’d love.” She cheerfully stated, giving Maria a brief wave. “Lunch.”
Maria waved back, then cleared her throat a bit. “Dar, by any chance did you speak with…”
“Yes, she’s fine, she doesn’t need anything, she wishes she were here, and I sent my mother over to keep her company.” Dar rattled off on her way to the outer door. “But if you want to send her chocolate ice cream, go for it.”
Maria covered her mouth to stifle a laugh, as she watched them leave. She shook her head, then turned to flip through her phone directory until she found the number she was looking for. Just as she was about to dial, the outer door opened again and Mayte slipped inside. “Bueno. I am glad you are here. Please pay attention, so you know the next time what to do, yes?”
Mayte came around the desk and knelt down, watching obediently. “Mama, Kerry’s comemadre Colleen just came to the office, and said to tell everyone who is talking that Kerry did not get hit by Dar. Did you know that?”
Maria stopped in mid dial, and clicked the phone off. “Did I know that it was not so? I never once even thought that it was. Was there people saying that?”
“She said that there were, but I did not hear anything like that.” Mayte said. “People do not say such things to me, I think, because they are afraid you will hit them.”
“Good.” Maria nodded briskly. “I will send a note to Conchita and Rose, and those others so whatever they are saying, they will stop. I have got them good chained.”
“Trained, mama.” Mayte murmured. “But I am glad it is not true. I would not like to think Kerry could get hurt that way.”
Maria leaned on her desk. “I will tell you something. Dar may be many many things and some people may think she is tough, and mean, and would do something like that. But I know in my heart that before she would do any little thing to hurt Kerry, she would faster jump off the building.”
Mayte nodded. “I think so too.” She hesitated. “But mama, I did hear something that really bothered me just before. Some people are saying that they are going to break up, and they have heard Kerry talk about leaving. Do you think that’s true?”
Maria turned in her chair and stared at her daughter. “Como?” She said, astonished. “They told you that? Who told you that?”
Mayte shook her head. “No, they did not tell me, mama, I heard. It was in the bathroom. They did not know I was there.” She explained. “One was the woman who works over near the little room with all the books here, and the other I did not know.”
Maria was quiet for a brief time, as she pondered what to do. “Mayte, no, I do not think that is true at all.” She finally said. “But we must find out who is saying these things, and why they are saying them.”
“Okay.” Her daughter agreed. “Then we can throw food at them, yes?”
“Tch.” Maria gave her a look. “That was not funny.”
“Mama, yes it was.” Mayte told her. “Kerry said it was very funny. She is so sad there are no pictures.” She got to her feet. “But, yes, we should find out who is being so mean, and make them stop it. I know it would hurt Kerry very much if she heard someone say that. I think she really is very devoted.”
“Si.” Her mother agreed. “First, let me do this thing I want to show you. Have you gone for lunch yet?”
Mayte fidgeted a little. “I was going to meet someone for lunch, Mama.”
Maria looked at her, then made a clucking sound. Mayte blushed, and shrugged. “It is not that person with the pins again, is it?”
Mayte shook her head.
“Dios Mio.” Maria dialed the phone. “Please god, that you find someone nice like Kerrisita who I don’t have to worry about being a pincushion.”
Mayte sighed. “It would be nice if Kerry were twins.” She admitted mournfully.
Her mother paused, and gave her a look.
“Don’t you think so?”
“Dios Mio.” Maria glanced at the ceiling, then looked down as the phone was answered. “Hello, Senor Clemente? Si, this is Maria. Yes, I have something I need for you to do for me.”
Andrew looked up as the door slammed, recognizing one of the two women in charge of the compouters. She stopped and looked around, then headed determinedly towards him. Since he was the only one left in the trailer, it wasn’t unexpected, so he turned and faced her, waiting in neutral silence.
“I’m looking for the crew chief.” The woman said, stopping in front of him.
Andrew rotated his head and looked round the small trailer. “He ain’t here.” He drawled politely.
“I can see that. Where is he? I need to speak to him right now.” Shari snapped.
“Wall.” Andrew sniffed. “I do believe he said he was goin to get him some lunch.”
Shari looked at her watch. “When?”
“Bout half hour past.”
Visibly disgusted, Shari turned and regarded the trailer. “Did he say where?” She turned again and stared at Andrew. “With all this going on, how could he have just left?”
“He was hungry?” Mild, blue eyes blinked back at her. “Feller’s entitled to have him some lunch.”
“Not on my dime.” The woman paused. “Did I meet you somewhere before? Or are you just from around here?”
A corner of Andrew’s lip twitched. “Ah do believe we have never met. I surely would have remembered it.”
“Whatever.” Shari turned and headed for the door. “When he gets back, you tell him to call me. Otherwise, I can arrange for him to find another job.” She turned, pausing on the steps out. “Sure you can remember all that?”
“Ah do believe I can.” Andy said. “If that there feller does come back, ah will surely tell him.”
Halfway out the door, Shari stopped. “If?”
Andy got up and stretched, his hands touching the roof of the trailer as he shook the kinks out of his tall frame. “Yeap. He done took all that there paperwork with him, and ah figure he probly headed back to his office or something.”
“Shit.” Shari slammed the door and stomped down the steps, making the wall of the trailer shake.
Andrew lowered his arms and chuckled, half turning as the back door opened and the supervisor returned, wiping his hands off on the tails of his shirt.
“Hey, did I hear that woman in here?” The super asked.
“Yeap.” Andy nodded. “I done told her you took off for the day.”
The super started laughing. “You did?” He walked over and slapped Andrew on the back. “Damn, I like you Ugly. I’m gonna give you a damn raise.” He went to his desk and looked out the window. “There she blows.. I mean goes.. what’d she want, anyway?”
Andrew returned to his sorting task, making marks on a sheet of paper. “Ah do not know.” He answered honestly. “Just wanted to talk to you.”
“Ahhh.. it’ll wait.” The super sat down at his desk. “Last thing she asked me to do was submit one of her orders six times. What kind of bullshit was that? Must be nuts.”
Andy’s eyebrow lifted. One thing he was fairly sure of, was that whatever the woman did, it was for a purpose, and the purpose was probably something he wasn’t going to like.
Just like he didn’t like the woman herself.
“What?” Kerry frowned, listening to Mark’s voice on the cell phone. “Tell me this again?” She glanced up as Ceci re-entered the living room. “They said what?”
“It’s a crock, boss.” Mark sounded more than peeved. “Son of a bitches.. I called them to find out a ship status on the order, and they told me it was on hold because they were out of stock.”
Kerry’s one good eye narrowed. “You didn’t see that when you placed it the other day?”
“Nope. I had a seven day delivery quoted.” Mark said. “So I called our rep, and he said there wasn’t anything he could do – out of stock is out of stock… but he could get us hooked up through a distribution channel provider.”
“At list price.” Kerry said.
“Problems?” Ceci sat down on the love seat and picked up her teacup, sipping it as she watched Kerry’s face. It’s usual good humor had vanished, and the gentle planes had hardened into a much sterner profile.
“Bastards.” Kerry murmured. “Mark, that can’t be an accident. We’re all using the same gear. Someone got to someone.”
“That’s what I thought.” Mark agreed readily. “But the rep won’t budge. Said someone above him released the shipment – some big customer apparently.”
Kerry folded her arm over her stomach and stared past the glass doors. “We’re big customers, Mark.”
“That’s what I told him. And told him. And told him.” Her MIS manager said. “I don’t think there was squat he could do, Kerry. I even asked to talk to his boss, and got told he was out of the country.”
“Pfft.” Kerry snorted in derision.
‘So what do you want to do? Go with the distribution order? Maybe we can shave off some costs somewhere else..?”
Kerry exhaled, wondering really what her options were. If they lost the advantage their discount gave them, could she make it up somewhere else? The project was so important – could she risk it?
What would Dar do?
Kerry turned her head and focused her vision on the picture just to one side of the television, the one where Dar was looking right at the camera, and seemingly right into her eyes.
“Still here, boss.” Mark spoke through the everpresent rattling of keys. “You got any great ideas? I was even surfing around our inventory to see if we can pull from stock, but we just don’t have enough units for the full order.”
“Call that jerk back up, and tell him that I said if he doesn’t shake that order loose, we’re going with another vendor’s gear.”
Silence. “Um.. okay.” Mark hesitated.
Longer silence. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope.” Kerry said. “They want to lose a top tier partner? Fine. I’ll get two other infrastructure companies in here giving me bids by the weekend, and believe me, my friend, they’ll be more than happy not only to give us better prices, but tell the press all about it as loud as they can.”
“You want me to call him?” Kerry asked.
“No, I’ll do it.” Mark recovered hastily. “No problem – matter of fact, I’d enjoy the heck out of it. Lemme call you back after I talk to him, okay?”
Kerry folded the phone up and laid it on her stomach, letting out a long breath before she glanced over at Ceci. “Sometimes, you just have to be a bitch.”
Ceci leaned on the arm of the love seat, her gray eyes wryly twinkling. “Kerry, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’d have to channel the Wicked Witch of the West with terminal PMS to come off as a really good bitch. You’re just too cute.”
Her guts still churning in side, Kerry nevertheless managed a wry grin. “Yeah. I know. Dar says the same thing.” She admitted. “Even my getting a tattoo really doesn’t up the intimidation factor.”
“You?” Ceci sat up. “Got a tattoo?”
“I sure did.” Kerry got up off the couch and walked over, crouching next to her mother-in-law and pulling her t-shirt down off one shoulder. “See?” She watched the puzzled, then charmed expression cross Ceci’s face and smiled as their eyes met again.
“What did Dar say when she saw that?” Ceci asked. “It’s absolutely gorgeous, by the way. You found a great artist.”
“Mm.” Kerry relived the warmth of the moment. “She didn’t say much. But she liked it.” She got up and plopped back down onto the couch.
“I bet she did.” Ceci said. “What made you decide to get that done? I never figured you for the pain loving type.” She settled back in the love seat and tucked her bare feet up under her, leaning on the arm as she watched Kerry squirm around on the couch.
“Well.” Kerry stretched out, resting her head on the thickly padded arm. “I’m not. I hate needles almost as much as Dar does.”
“That’s saying something.” Ceci commented wryly. “I always timed her checkups for when Andy was home, because he was the only one who could hold her down long enough for them to inoculate her.”
Kerry spared a moment to imagine that. Her partner had a considerable amount of strength, and she could easily imagine her terrorizing the nurses. “Well, considering what happened to her in the hospital that one time, I can’t say I really blame her. I know I was an adult when I had my one horror show and how it affected me, so..” She glanced up at Ceci, who now had a pensive look on her face. “Anyway, it was when Dar was in New York. I finished boxing class, and I guess that, plus talking with the guys, plus the smell of a new Harley.. I don’t know. I think I just went nuts for the night.”
“Ah.” The older woman nodded.
They were both quiet for a brief time. Then Kerry sighed. “It was just something I wanted to do.” She said. “And you know, I was worried about what Dar would say.”
“About that?” Ceci’s eyebrows popped up like a surprised meerkat.
“About me doing it.” Kerry turned and grabbed her cell phone again as it rang. “Yes?” She answered it, pushing her disordered hair out of the way. “Hey Mark. What’s up? Did you get through to that guy?”
Mark sounded as though he was out of the office for a change, traffic sounding behind him instead of the usual humming bustle of the MIS center. “I did, boss. He’s gonna call me back.” He told her. “He was not a happy guy.”
“I’m not a happy gal.” Kerry retorted. “So we’re even – did he really think he’d just get away with that game that easily?”
“I dunno.” Mark sighed. “I’m just grabbing something for lunch – I passed DR heading to the sushi place with that reporter – glad she wasn’t there when this hit the fan.”
Mm. Sushi. Kerry stifled a grin, recalling the little place she’d found, which had been there for years and escaped Dar’s notice somehow. It was small, but the service was good and they had a table in the back where the little waitresses always recognized them. “That reporter’s connected with the ship bid.” She told Mark. “Guess they didn’t antagonize Dar too badly, if she’s eating with them.”
“Yeah.” Mark agreed. “She looked nice enough – not like that scruffy guy who came in here last time.” A siren blared. “Well, soon I hear back on our order, I’ll give you buzz, okay? I’m almost to pizza.”
“Right.” Kerry agreed. “Have a good pizza, Mark.” She hung up, and felt her nostrils twitch just a trifle as she acknowledged a brief pang thinking about Dar having lunch with another women. It was extremely unclassy, and stupid, and pointless, so she just waited it out and after a second it passed and she could mentally roll her eyes at herself.
If there was one thing she knew she could trust completely, it was Dar in that regards. Heck, Dar had turned away offers even before they were barely friends, much less involved with each other. She was steadfast and honest, and it bothered Kerry to even have the littlest of reactions to the thought of anything otherwise.
Ah well. She released a long sigh, and dismissed the thought. “So anyway, that’s how I ended up with a tattoo.”
Ceci had been quietly watching her. “Did Dar mind you doing it? I don’t really think she’d object.. I know she really wanted one when she was younger, but her father and her own dislike of the apparatus dissuaded her.”
“No.” Kerry shook her head. “I don’t think she minded at all. She thinks it’s kind of.. um.. “ She blushed slightly. “Well..”
“Well, it’s her name on your chest.” The gray eyes twinkled. “So I’m sure it’s quite sexy.”
“Yeah.” Kerry’s blush deepened, and she scrubbed one hand over her cheek. “But it’s not just that, I think… I think it means something else, too.”
Ceci pursed her lips. “I think it means for her the kind of permanence she was always looking for.” Dar’s mother spoke up unexpectedly. “I didn’t understand that for such a long time.”
Kerry nodded, a lump rising in her throat. “That’s what I wanted it to mean.” She could hear the husky note in her voice, and she stopped speaking, to let it clear.
Ceci fiddled with her cup, as the silence lengthened. “Want more?” She offered. “I’d offer to bake cookies, but we both know how that’s going to turn out.”
Kerry smiled. ‘Sure. How about you get some tea, and I’ll bake the cookies? I’ve got a black eye, not a broken leg.” She got up from the couch, suddenly wanting something to do. “Besides, I know they won’t go to waste later on if we have extra.”
“Eh.” Ceci amiably joined her. “That’s for sure.”
“Hey, any chance of Dad stopping by after work?”
“With cookies in the offing? I couldn’t twist his arm even if I could reach it.”
Kerry chuckled, putting aside her worries for now. There would be time enough to worry about them later.