“That wasn’t very successful.”
Dar leaned on the inner balcony, watching a bird fly across the inside of the huge lobby. “Not for them, no.” She agreed. “But I sure had fun.”
Kerry looped a finger into Dar’s belt and tugged. “Let’s go change, sweetheart. We’re due at the convention in forty minutes.” She turned and started walking, towing her taller companion behind her. “You know, Dar, I don’t know that antagonizing those two was a really good idea.”
Dar sighed aggrievedly.
Kerry unlocked the door to their room and pushed it open. “I mean, I don’t like them either, but we could have had a truce just during the show. I don’t really want to spend the next two days dodging darts.”
“Yeah, I know.” Dar trudged past her and kicked her sneakers off, pulling open the closet door to expose the neatly pressed business clothes hanging there. “Sorry.” She pulled her t-shirt over her head and tossed it over the back of the nearby chair, unbuttoning her jeans one handedly and sliding out of them.
Kerry leaned back against the dresser, just watching her partner for a few minutes. Then she pushed off and walked over to her, pressing her cheek against Dar’s bare shoulder for just an instant before she gave her a kiss on the same spot and slipped past, scratching Dar’s back with her fingertips as she headed for the bathroom.
Dar almost let her get out of reach, then at the last minute she extended one long arm and caught Kerry’s sleeve.
Feeling the tug, Kerry stopped and half turned, her brows lifting in question. Her searching eyes found something in Dar’s that made her walk back over and lean against her, waiting in silence as her partner’s jaw muscles worked briefly.
After a little silence between them, Dar lifted one hand and gently traced the curve of Kerry’s jaw, an unusually sad look on her face.
“What?” Kerry asked, in a low tone. “It’s Shari, isn’t it?”
Dar’s lips twitched slightly. “It’s idiotic.” She replied. “I just can’t be nice to her, Kerry. No matter how I try to rationalize it.”
Kerry leaned into her touch. “I know she hurt you.”
Dar blinked a few times. “She almost made me miss out on meeting you.” She replied quietly. “Kerry, I hate her. I can’t pretend I don’t.” She exhaled, feeling a sense of almost absurd relief and just saying the words, and even more so when she saw the understanding in Kerry’s eyes. “I know this is business, but I can’t do it.”
The cell phone still clipped to Dar’s discarded jeans buzzed. But Kerry took both of Dar’s hands in hers and ignored it, looking her partner squarely.
Her breath almost stopped in her chest, seeing an expression on that face she’d never seen before. Then Dar blinked, and it was gone, but Kerry knew she’d gotten a glimpse of the confused young woman who had gotten kicked in the head by love all those years ago.
It stirred a feeling inside her, deep and powerful, and she pressed her body against Dar’s, slipping her arms around her sturdy form and pulling her close. “I understand.” She tilted her head to look up. “We’ll deal with it. You be as nasty as you want to be.. I’m right there with you.” Her arms tightened. “I’m right here for you.”
Magic words. Dar could almost see the wonder of them as they settled around her, a precious gift that put a gossamer bandage on wounds she hadn’t suspected she’d still possessed. “Boy I must sound like a nitwit.” She murmured softly.
“Never.” Kerry replied.
“Yeah, I do.” Dar rested her cheek against Kerry’s head. “But what the hell. They expect me to be an asshole, I’ll just live up to their expectations.” She half chuckled, a tiny, wry sound. “But no more breakfasts. I’m not wasting one more cent of my expense account getting indigestion.”
Kerry dropped her hand down and gave Dar’s belly a rub. “Did you really?”
A sigh. “Yeah.” Dar admitted.
“Okay.” Kerry took a deep breath. “Here’s what I’d like you to do. Will you think about it at least before you start making those grunting no noises?”
Caught in the actual act of preparing to do just that, Dar cleared her throat instead. “Um. Sure.”
“I’d like you to just crash here for a while, and let me show my title off at the show for a while.” Kerry said. “Would you do that for me?”
“I don’t need to do that.”
“No.” Kerry agreed. “But I’d like you to anyway. Please?”
Dar considered the request seriously. Her first instinct was to refuse, and she mulled that over as her fingers sorted through Kerry’s hair, watching the gray illumination outside catch light and dark shadows in the soft locks. The pros and cons sorted themselves out as easily, and after a brief pause, she nodded “All right.”
Kerry smiled at her.
“On one condition.”
The green eyes rolled. “Always.”
“If anyone asks you where I am…” Dar clasped her hands and put them behind Kerry’s neck.
“You tell them you wore me out last night and I had to take a nap.”
Kerry produced a noise somewhere between a sneeze and a cough, both of her eyebrows hiking up. “Dar!”
At last, her partner laughed softly. “Just kidding.” She relented. “Actually, I’m going to boot up and start some deep research on Telegenics.” Her brows contracted. “If we missed who was behind them, we might have missed a lot more. You know how much I hate surprises.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Kerry plucked at the waistband of Dar’s briefs, a spiffy blue pair covered in grinning goldfish. “You could lay out on the balcony in these. Everyone would think it was a swimsuit. No one would know.”
“I would know.” Dar objected. “My daddy didn’t raise me to show my drawers in public, you pithy little Yankee.” She nudged Kerry a little. “G’wan. Eleanor is probably getting so nervous her eyelashes are touching her navel.”
Reassured by her partner’s tone, Kerry stepped to one side and removed Dar’s cell, then she moved to the closet to get her suit out. When she turned, Dar had tugged a pair of shorts on and was sprawling onto the bed, already pulling her laptop over to her.
Satisfied with her plan, Kerry hooked the hanger with her suit, a new silver blue one with a deep aqua silk blouse that she’d picked up not long before. She spent a moment attaching her favorite pin to the lapel, then studied the results.
It would do. She glanced over her shoulder at Dar, whose half bare body was vividly outlined against the white sheets and spared herself a moment of envy, and then she started dressing for the show.
“Hey, Ker?” Dar interrupted her. “You should keep that t-shirt on.”
Kerry paused and glanced at the garment. “Oh, that’d make a great impression, Dar.” She laughed, a touch embarrassed. “Were you thinking I could open my jacket and flash anyone who pissed me off?”
Dar rolled onto her side and crossed her ankles. “Hm.”
“I was joking.” Kerry tossed the shirt at her, landing it on her head and watching in amusement as it draped half over her face and obscured one pale eye. “I’m not wearing a shirt that says RTFM to a trade show.”
Her partner wiggled a sock covered toe at her. “Yeah.” She agreed. “You’d spend your whole damn time explaining what it meant.”
Kerry chuckled, removing her jeans and reluctantly replacing them with the austere, straight line skirt that came to a respectable knee level and the light, silk shirt that was thankfully sleeveless. She tucked the blouse in to the skirt’s waistband and buckled the integrated belt, picking up her shoes and taking them to the bed with her as she sat down to put them on. “I think I like the one you have better.” She said. “The programming one?”
Dar chuckled. “I like the ‘no, I won’t fix your damn computer’ one myself.” She rested her head on her fist and ignored her laptop screen. “Hey, Ker?”
Kerry fastened her watch around her wrist and stood, turning to face the bed. “Hm?”
The visible blue eye twinkled. “Being my best friend.”
Kerry picked up her jacket and walked over to the side of the bed, leaning over to kiss Dar on the lips. “And what a pleasure it is to be that.” She whispered, nudging aside the still draped shirt so she could look into both eyes. “I’ll give you a call when it’s time for you to make your grand, triumphant entrance, okay?”
“Okay.” Dar agreed. “Have fun.”
Kerry shrugged into her jacket, twitching the light linen fabric straight and fastening the single button. It was cut somewhat low, accentuating her tapered physique, and she gave Dar a wink as she accepted the frankly admiring gaze turned on her. “Look okay?”
“You look better out of it.” Dar replied. “But it’ll do for now.” She watched Kerry check her image in the mirror, then pause to clip the cellphone to her belt. “Give them heck.”
“Do my best.” Kerry went to the door, looking back as she opened it an leaned against the jamb. “Will you…”
“Keep my eye on the pipes?” Dar swiveled her laptop around, displaying a screen full of jumping gauges. “Nah.”
Kerry grinned, and ducked out the door, letting it slide shut behind her.
Dar let the echoes fade before she turned the laptop around and minimized the displays, bringing up another screen and keying in a terse request. “All right… let’s see what the hell we’ve got here.” She muttered to herself. “Before anyone other than me realizes how frigging embarrassing it is that I let these guys stomp all over us and didn’t even pay attention to it.”
She set the request to run, and laid back against the pillows. After a few moments, the silence of the room started bothering her, and she reached for the television control, flipping on the room’s set on. After browsing her choices, she settled on ESPN and let it run in the background as she opened her mail program.
The inbox filled with black lines that she glanced over, dividing her attention between the headers and the women playing volleyball on the screen. After a few minutes, however, she abandoned the mail and just watched the game, tucking Kerry’s discarded t-shirt under her head as she put it down on the pillow. In her peripheral vision, a thin line of alert gauges winked reassuringly green.
It was a short trip, but Kerry was glad it was over. Driving in the rain heavy enough to drown lobsters with nervous tourists wasn’t her idea of fun at any time, and she was more than happy to park Dar’s big Lexus near the front of the parking lot and bolt for the door.
A small crowd was milling there, and as she ran her fingers through her hair to shed the rain from it, the guard spotted her company badge and politely cleared a path. Kerry gave him a gracious nod then realized belatedly it was the same guy as the night they’d arrived. Her face crinkled into a wry grin as he held the door for her. “Thanks.” She addressed him pleasantly. “Sure beats coming in the construction entrance.”
He froze, but she didn’t give him a chance to answer as she strode inside and headed for the show hall. Now, the lights in the outer lobby were on, and a buzz of conversation filled the high ceiling’d space. Banners were strung across over the doorways, and company representatives were everywhere, passing out marketing gimmicks and the occasional business card.
It was all too familiar to Kerry. She’d attended more than her share of trade shows on behalf of ILS, and as she made her way through the crowd and was recognized, she returned the greetings with pleasant good manners.
It was ironic in the extreme that her early training in her father’s household now served her so well, making her responses gracious and automatic and completely forgettable. Kerry excused herself from between two of her major distributor’s sales directors and escaped into their booth, giving the techs and the salespeople a brief wave. “Hi guys.”
“Kerry!” Mark appeared from apparently nowhere, dressed in a crisp company shirt and black pleated slacks. “Glad you’re here.”
“Uh oh.” Kerry brushed a last droplet off her sleeve. “What’s broken?”
Her MIS manager put his hands on his hips. “Does it have to be a bad thing that you’re here?” He asked plaintively.
“No.” The blond VP smiled at him. “True disasters wait for Dar.” She glanced around at the crowd. “They about to open the doors? There’s more people here than I thought there would be, with this weather.”
“No shit.” Mark agreed. “Hey, you know who’s here?” His voice dropped, and he moved closer to Kerry.
Kerry gave him a wry look.
“Guess you do.”
“We had breakfast with them.” Kerry ran her eye over the interior of the booth, and gave the approaching Eleanor a quick smile. Everything looked ready, and she exhaled out that tiny bit of apprehension still tensing her guts from their abandonment of the prior day. “Morning, El.”
“Good morning to you too, Kerry.” Eleanor was in a good humor. “Fricking weather’s going to knock us on the ass for a while, but that’s a good thing. Start slow, less bull.” She leaned against the counter next to Kerry. “Where’s Rambo’s worst nightmare?”
“Chilling.” Kerry watched a group of salesmen from their biggest network equipment supplier break out of a huddle and make a beeline for her. “She’ll be by later.”
“Good.” Eleanor spotted a slow, but steady flow of people into the room. “Let’s keep them waiting… I know there’s a t least four big talkers around who were looking to meet her.” The marketing VP brushed her hands together. “All right folks – it’s showtime. Let’s go get ‘em.”
Mark eased back in next to her as the marketing people cleared out, starting to filter through the crowd with their bags full of ILS stress balls and the rather clever little beanbag monitor perchers that resembled a cartoon Rottweiler theoretically watching over you. “Man, there were people talking all over the place today.” He told Kerry. “Those Telegenics guys were over here talking shit, but I ran them off.”
“Mm.” Kerry folded her arms across her chest. “They tried to recruit us the other night.”
Mark laughed. “Yeah, the boys told me.” He agreed. “Bet he’s going to crap when he finds out who he was talking to.”
Kerry spied their little friend in question and chuckled under her breath. ‘Yeah.” She pushed off from the console and strolled off. “I bet he is.”
The soft chime of her laptop slowly penetrated Dar’s idle, formless dreams and after a few moments of confusion, she opened her eyes, blinking them a few times to regain their focus. “Umph.” She lifted a hand and scrubbed her face, putting her head down and almost letting the warm comfort of her pillow reclaim her.
One hand lifted and touched her trackpad, and she studied the results of her query in silence. One eyebrow slowly lifted. She raised up on one elbow and typed another request in one handed, rolling the pointer over and clicking to submit it.
She’d slept for two hours, and she felt like she could sleep for a few more. Maybe it was the weather. Dar peered over her own shoulder at the window, which was still being lashed by rain. It was dark inside the room, and cool – perfect day for staying in bed.
Well. Dar shifted a little. That’s exactly what she was doing, wasn’t she?. Lazily she rolled over and stretched her body out, peering up at the television. The volleyball game was over, replaced by a gymnastics competition. She watched the girls tumbling in their intricate routines, and idly imagined Kerry participating when she was younger.
One of the girls stood at the edge of the mat, her tongue sticking out a little as she concentrated and Dar found herself smiling, knowing Kerry would have likely been doing the same thing. She did, when she was focused on something, often without realizing it.
It was really cute. Dar put her hands behind her head and indulged in a little daydreaming time. It was interrupted, however, by the room’s phone ringing. Dar turned her head, frowning as she judged how long Kerry had been gone. She picked up the phone and put it to her ear. “Yes?”
“You had a fifty fifty chance and you blew it.” Dar replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ms. Roberts?”
“I have a package here at the front desk for Ms. Stuart. Is it all right for me to send it up?”
Package? Dar was puzzled. “Sure.” She answered, trying to recall what package Kerry might have been expecting. It didn’t come to her, so she just put the phone down and got up, walking over to the bathroom and running some water to wash her face with.
She was patting her skin dry when the door knock came, so she tossed the towel down and went to the door, opening it to find a short, curly haired boy standing there with the promised package. “Hi.”
The boy blinked and swallowed, then held out the package to her. Dar took it, watching bemusedly as he turned and sped away, disappearing around the corner of the hallway and into a culvert in mere seconds.
“Huh.” Dar closed the door and glanced down at the box, only then realizing she was still in just her bra and jeans. An embarrassed chuckle forced it’s way out and she covered her face with one hand, wondering if she was due a smack to the head to get her brains working again.
She dismissed the bellboy and examined the package instead. It was relatively small, but heavier than she’d expected for it’s size. The label on it was addressed to Kerry, sure enough, at the hotel address, but the return address was…
“New Zealand?” Dar repeated. “Who in the hell do we know in New Zealand?” Several major accounts, of course, but she didn’t think Kerry knew any of them personally, and besides, the box was from what appeared to be a business.
Dar walked over to the table and set the box down, then dropped into the chair next to it and folded her arms across her bare belly. She was curious. One hand lifted and she thunked the box with her finger, hearing a sturdy solidity inside.
Hm. Dar picked the box up and brought it close to her face, sniffing it. Cardboard. “Okay.” She examined the wrapping, which was very thoroughly taped. After a moment, she put it back down and drummed her fingers on the table.
She could probably open it. Kerry probably would not mind, since the object had been sent to their hotel room and it would be logical to assume Dar would see it anyway.
“Okay, how would you feel if she opened it and it was yours?” Dar asked the empty room. “Would you care?”
Would she? Dar drew one knee up and circled it with both arms, taking a rare delve into her own psyche.
“No.” She finally spoke frankly. “I wouldn’t give a damn, which means Kerry probably would. So leave it alone,” She got up and left the package where it was, returning to the bed and plopping back down beside her laptop.
But now that she was up, she felt restless again. So though she put her computer up onto her lap, she also dragged the phone over and picked it up.
“Room service.” The tinny voice answered promptly.
“Hi.” Dar tapped a command into her mail program. “Can you send me up a really big pot of coffee, a jug of milk, and a bowl of chocolate ice cream?”
“Hello?” Dar frowned at the phone.
“Yes, ma’am – that’ll be one pot of coffee for… how many people?”
“One person who really likes coffee.” Dar replied. “Whatever your biggest one is.”
The sound of writing. “Okay, and a jug… is that like a glass?”
“No.” Dar glanced at the first mail in the box. “If I wanted a glass, I’d ask for a glass. Just bring me a half gallon, or whatever..”
“Our biggest is. Gotcha.” The room service clerk replied. “And our biggest bowl of chocolate ice cream?”
“You’re catching on.” Dar said.
“That will be about fifteen minutes.”
“Thanks.” Dar hung up the phone and settled back, plumping the pillows up behind her and resolving to at least get some work done. After a few minutes though, she found her attention wandering from the mundanity of the mail again and focusing on the television. An extremely cute blond girl was on the balance beam, and as Dar watched, the kid did a backflip and missed.
“Ouch.” Dar winced, as the small body hit the bar, then the mat. She got up immediately, but she was obviously stunned, and wavered as she tried to get back on the bar. “Hey! Stop her, you creep!” She instructed the girl’s coach, visible just on the side of the floor exhorting her.
The girl put her hands on the bar and boosted herself up, getting her feet under her and standing up. But as she started to walk, she lost her balance again and fell in a heap on the mat, this time staying there.
Dar was surprised at the outrage she felt, as the coach yelled, faintly audible, for the girl to get up. “Stupid son of a…” She barked at the television. “Go help her!”
The coach did not. However, as though hearing Dar, one of the other competitors, a taller girl with dark hair did rush over and kneel next to the fallen gymnast even though her costume indicated she was on a different team.
The coach yelled again, but the dark haired girl looked up and yelled back angrily, and then people began rushing on to the floor and surrounding them both.
“Mm.” Dar returned her attention to her mail. “That’s better. You go, kid.” She typed in silence for a moment, then the irony of the situation struck her and she looked back up at the screen just in time to see the tall gymnast helping the shorter one off the mat, their arms wrapped around each other.
Dar chewed her inner lip and then she smiled, making a mental note to check the ESPN website later and find out who the kids were. There was, she suspected, a story in there somewhere. Her eyes shifted to the table, suspecting there was a story inside the box too.
With a sigh, she went back to her typing. As she finished one mail and found herself checking the television before going to the next, she recalled something Kerry had said. “Restless.” Dar murmured under her breath. “Hmph.”
Kerry walked up in back of Mr. Slimy, giving him a smile as he sensed her presence and turned to face her. “Hi.”
“Oh! Hi.. um… “ The man’s eyes dropped to her corporate badge. “Kerry wasn’t… it…ah.”
‘That’s right.” Kerry replied. “And you can do me a big favor by cutting the crap out and stop wasting my people’s time.”
He actually took a step back. “Hey, wait a minute…”
“No wait a minute.” Kerry squared her shoulders and gave him a direct stare. “They’re too smart to do anything but laugh at someone who would go behind their bosses back and approach them like that. If you’d do it to me, you’d do it to them. None of my people like stupid games.”
The man blinked. “Look, it was just business as usual, Ms. Stuart. Don’t tell me you don’t do it.”
“I don’t do it.” Kerry shot right back at him. “And if you do it again, you’re going to have to explain to my boss why you’re annoying my staff.”
He held up both hands. “Okay, lady. Okay.” He took a step backwards into Telegenic’s booth. “No problem… I get the message.”
Michelle Graver suddenly appeared around the other side of the booth. “What message?” She glanced at Kerry, one ginger eyebrow lifting at the blond woman’s aggressive stance. “Problem, ah… Kerry?”
Of the two of them, Kerry found it much easier to tolerate Michelle, for some probably not to noble reasons. “You have slimebags working for you.” She informed her. “I’m over it. He doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.”
Michelle gave her manager a look, and he ducked away, disappearing into the interior of the booth. Then she turned back to her visitor. “Ah. Tried a little poaching, huh?”
Kerry put one hand on her hip. “He tried to recruit me and Dar.”
Both of Michelle’s eyebrows hit her hairline with an almost audible crack. “Ambitious.” She murmured under her breath.
“Not really. He had no idea who we were.”
“Ah.” Michelle cleared her throat. “Sorry.” She grinned slightly. “We are pretty aggressive. I wont’ apologize for that.” Her eyes drifted, then went back to Kerry. “Sorry about breakfast.”
For a moment Kerry didn’t answer, as she wavered, deciding how to respond. Then she relaxed her stance a trifle. “What did you really expect?” She asked.
Graver exhaled, and half shrugged. “That we’d all act like adults.” She said, giving her head a slight toss to take the edge off the comment. “Let’s see if I can start over. Buy you a cup of coffee?”
Good cop, bad cop. Kerry almost smiled. “Sure.” She agreed,
Michelle turned and lead the way towards the snack bar on one side of the convention hall. “Nice turnout. Didn’t expect that with the rain.”
“We did.” Kerry let her arms drop to her sides and lengthened her steps, secretly enjoying the sensation of having someone shorter than she was have to keep up with her. Dar was such a beast that way – she didn’t do it on purpose, but her legs were so much longer than Kerry’s she always felt like she was having to take a little hop to keep up.
“Orlando is full of distractions.” Kerry arrived at the snack bar and pointed at the coffee, then held up two fingers. “However, most of them are outdoors. We’re not.” She leaned on the counter and faced Michelle. “I’m glad I got my fun in yesterday.”
Michelle took one of the cups the server offered them and indicated a small table nearby. She lead the way over and sat down, waiting for Kerry to take the seat opposite her before she spoke. “Listen.” She leaned on one elbow. “This is a.. touchy… kind of situation, I know that.”
Kerry’s eyebrows twitched.
“We really didn’t want this to turn into a war.”
“Sure you did.” Kerry cut her off, but in a remarkably mild tone. “You came in here setting the stage for us to clash.”
“Well, you did. It’s not my fault.” The blond woman said. “I wasn’t the one who tried to pay off the convention staff not to help set the place up, and I wasn’t the one who sent my lackeys around trying to steal other company’s employees.”
Michelle eyed her. “You’re not as nice as you used to be.” She remarked. “Dar must be rubbing off on you.”
Far from taking offense, Kerry produced a sunny grin at that. “Thank you.” She sat back and sipped at her coffee, waiting for Michelle’s next salvo. In the mean time, she let her eyes scan the room casually, spotting ILS’s marketing team doing their thing in the aisles. Eleanor had the vice president of technology of one of their biggest clients by the lapel, and she made a point of making eye contact with Kerry as she cruised along with him. “Ah. Sorry to cut this short, but my services are required.”
Michelle was nothing if not tenacious. “Okay. Can we try all this again at dinner tonight? Call me a stinkweed, but I still want to try and make this work. We can all learn from each other.”
Kerry crumpled her cup and tossed it into the nearby wastepaper basket. “Thanks. “ She stood up and braced her hands on the table, leaning on them a little. “But no thanks. We’ve got plans for tonight.” She straightened and turned, walking away without a backward glance.
Michelle got up and dropped the half unfinished cup into the garbage can. “Well, I think I’ve wasted enough time for one day.” She commented to the receptacle. “Don’t you?” With a snort, she followed Kerry out onto the floor.
Dar had traded her unorthodox lounge wear for a pair of cutoff overalls and a polo shirt and had left her laptop behind as she investigated the hotel. She’d answered all her mail that she felt needed answering, and ditched the rest of it, losing interest in the weightlifting that had been showing on ESPN as well.
So here she was, sauntering around the lobby in her bare feet, watching the tourists mill around giving the still stormy weather evil looks. The interior of the hotel was a pristine white, and the whole décor was one of lightness and elegance.
Dar found a comfortable and mostly empty corner and selected a seat in it, leaning back against the cool fabric as she watched the world go by for a few minutes. There were families here, but she saw a lot of couples, too, walking together or sitting and talking around her.
Her own visits in her youth here had been very different. Dar propped her leg up with one ankle on her knee and rubbed the prominent bone with her thumb. They hadn’t been rich, far from it, and the best her father could do was one of the ratty little motels on the strip in Kissimmee or memorably the camping ground inside the park itself.
Fort Wilderness. Dar smiled to herself. She’d loved that place. It had been full of pine scent and horses, and she had spent hours with her father swimming in the manufactured swimming hole on the side of the lake.
It had been one of the best vacations ever. Just four days, a long weekend’s leave before his next deployment, but one of the few times Dar could remember where they’d all been just… happy together.
They’d slept in the back of Dad’s truck, under the nylon tent and sweated like pigs. It had just made the lake that much sweeter.
Dar looked up to find a man standing next to her, peering down. “Yes?”
“Are you Dar Roberts?”
A prickle of surprise rippled up and down her spine. “Yes.” Dar replied briefly. ‘Why?”
The man sat down and extended a hand, which Dar ignored until he awkwardly withdrew it. “My name is Peter Quest. You don’t know me.”
“You’re right. I don’t. What do you want?” Dar gave him a direct look.
“I’m just looking to do a little business, Ms. Roberts. I was told you would be someone I could talk to.” Quest replied. “I was at the trade show this morning looking for you, but they told me you weren’t around.”
“So you decided to walk around Disney hotels asking people at random if they were me?” Dar asked. “Nice.”
The man shook his head and chuckled. “No, I had a picture of you.” He admitted. “Hope you don’t mind.”
Dar set her feet on to the floor and leaned forward. “I do mind.” She spoke softly. “So you better explain why you’re stalking me before I kick your ass right out that door in the rain, buddy.”
Quest eased back away from her. “I beg your pardon, Ms. Roberts.. I’m making a big mess of this, and I’m sorry. I really meant no harm.. I just wanted to talk to you.” He licked his lips. “I’ve got a business proposal I think you might be interested in.”
Dar was on the verge of booting him anyway, when Alastair’s words echoed into her memory. New business. “Okay.” She replied instead, relaxing again into her chair. “I’m listening.” Her head cocked slightly, and she pinned the man with a sharp stare. “Start talking.”
“Um… “ Quest visibly gathered up his scattered wits, confused by her change of attitude.
‘Well??” Dar inquired.
The man held up one hand, then took a breath. “Okay.” He said. “Tell me. How do you feel about cruise ships?”
Dar’s eyebrows knit fiercely. “Cruise ships?”
“Yeah.” The man went on more confidently, producing a big smile. “Cruise ships.”
Well. Dar signed inwardly. Lucky me. He could have said pig farming.
Kerry could feel a headache building, and she subtly put her hand behind her neck and rubbed it as she listened to Eleanor’s smooth pitch. Their booth was now crowded with interested onlookers, most peering at the network monitor screens prominently displayed at each corner. They were showing a real time display of their systems, mirrored from the big monitor Mark had in the operations center down in Miami.
Out of long habit, she found herself keeping an eye on them also, because the colorful, bouncing screen represented things wholly her responsibility. At work, she had a twin of that screen mounted on a flat panel display in her office and she knew every graph like it was written across the back of her hand.
Kerry turned, vainly trying to keep her nostrils from flaring as she recognized Shari’s voice. “Yes?”
The husky woman leaned on the edge of the booth. “I’ll make this short and sweet.” She kept her voice low. “Michelle’s a decent sort, and she really has an idea that your company and ours can help each other.”
Kerry simply waited in silence.
“Leave me out of it.” Shari continued, after it was evident she wasn’t going to get an answer. “I know Dar has a problem with me.”
“You’re wrong. She doesn’t have a problem with you.” Kerry interrupted.
Shari rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. She doesn’t have a problem, but it’s not really likely that we’re going to start being pals any time soon, how’s that?” She gave Kerry a sarcastic look. “She never did have a handle on dealing with people. It’s nice to know nothing’s changed.”
The burn of anger didn’t surprise her this time. It almost felt good, in a way, because she knew the emotion was based squarely in the love she felt for Dar. “You know what?” Kerry finally spoke. “I guess you’re still the same asshole you were back then too. She doesn’t have a problem, but that doesn’t really matter to me because I have a problem with you, and with Michelle, and with your entire company. So do me a favor and go find someone else to hover over. Okay?”
Shari fell silent and just looked at her for a second, and then she straightened and took a step back. “O..kay.” She lifted both hands and dropped them. “Nice to have the air cleared.”
“It will be, as soon as you leave.” Kerry felt slightly abashed at letting her temper get the better of her. “Excuse me.” She moved over to where Eleanor was bidding her latest victim farewell. “El?”
“Hm?” The marketing VP turned. “Oh, hey Kerry. You ready to go get some lunch? My snappy patter’s wilted.”
The thought of lunch made her slightly sick to her stomach. She was shaking inside that much. “Actually, I was just going to tell you I’m heading back to the hotel to pick up Dar. I’ll get something there.” Kerry looked around. “We’ve got a nice crowd going.. I figured it was time for the ubergeek to show up.”
Eleanor smiled knowingly. “Go on.” She nudged Kerry. “See you after lunch.”
Kerry signaled to Mark that she was leaving, getting a thumbs up from him as he stood guard over the locked switch box. Feeling that everything was relatively well in hand, she turned and started to work her way out of the room.
Even the rain outside didn’t deter her. She cleared the door and stepped out into it, almost welcoming the wash of warm water that plastered the hair on her head and quickly dampened her clothes. She reached the Lexus and triggered the door lock, opening the driver’s side and sliding inside with a sense of relief.
It smelled like leather tinged with the faint hint of Dar’s usual perfume, and Kerry just sat there for a minute breathing it in.
Remembering the first time she’d ridden in this car, in a rain not really unlike the one she’d just escaped from.
It had been one of the most miserable nights of her life, and one of the most wonderful. Kerry leaned back in the comfortable seat and ran her fingers through her wet hair, pushing it back off her forehead. “You know what?” She mused. “A navy sweatshirt sure would feel good right about now.”
With a sigh, Kerry shook a few droplets of water off her hands and started the car up, shifting smoothly into reverse and backing out of the parking spot she’d chosen. If she couldn’t have a navy sweatshirt, at least she knew where to find the next best thing.
“No.” Dar slung her leg over one chair arm, leaning on the other. “I’m not interested.”
Peter Quest looked puzzled. “You’re not?” He asked. “I don’t understand. You’re a services company, we’re looking for someone to come in and install, maintain, and run networks on all our ships. What’s the problem?”
“I’m not in the business of being part of a circus.” Dar replied. “Why don’t you just throw open the business for bids? Plenty of companies around who’d be willing to tender. Why sneak around making secret deals to have people come in?”
Quest looked around carefully, then lowered his voice. “It’s really complicated.” He said. “Listen, can we go somewhere more private.. like the bar?”
Dar’s eyebrow lifted. “No.” She said. “My partner’s going to come back through here looking for me and damned if she’d look there.” She told Quest. “So talk, or take a hike.”
The man exhaled. “You’re a difficult person, Ms. Roberts.”
“Okay, here’s the deal.” Quest went on. “My company, American Visions, intends on being the first American cruise line in decades.” He said. “We’ve gotten ahold of six ships, and we’re having them rebuilt to US specifications in New Zealand.”
New Zealand again? Dar almost let herself get sidetracked. “Yeah?”
“But it’s all hush hush. If we can bring them into the States by January, we can grab a big segment of the homeland cruise market.”
Dar looked at him. “Hush hush?” She repeated. “They’re cruise ships. What do they go… seventy, eighty thousand tons? How the hell do you hide them?”
Quest looked around again. “We’re not revealing who owns them.” He said. “And they’ll get their final paint in San Diego. Anyway, seventy percent of the referb stuff needs to be US, and that includes the technical infrastructure.”
“And if we throw open bids, chances are people we don’t want to find out about this are going to find out, because they’ll send spies in to figure out what we’re up to.”
Dar braced her chin on her fist. “So what if I’m a spy?” She asked.
“Your company has no connection with the business.” He answered readily. “Neither does the other two American companies we asked to compete for the contract… and I’ve got some friends in the government who tell me you can keep your mouth shut.”
Dar shook her head. “Still not interested.” She said. “Who else are you asking? Maybe I can give you some names to talk to.”
Quest gazed at her, biting in the inside of his lip. Finally he leaned forward a little. “Advanced Tech, and Telegenics.”
“Ah.” Dar’s expression didn’t change, but a dark sparkle lit in her eyes. “Interesting choices.”
“Telegenics talks a good game. They’ve been wooing my director over another contract, so..” Quest shrugged. “Anyway, since you’re not interested, let me stop wasting your time.” He straightened up in his seat, and half turned, pausing as one of the figures walking across the lobby caught his eye. “Sure must be raining outside.”
Dar watched the object of his attention, an unconscious smile appearing on her face. Even drenched, Kerry had her head held high, and despite the rain dampened clothes she had an innate grace as she approached that attracted more eyes than Quests. “Mm.”
Quest started to stand as Kerry closed in on them, but she just gave him a polite smile as she dropped into the chair next to Dar’s and leaned on it’s arm. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Dar rolled her head to one side and indicated her somewhat unwelcome visitor. “Kerry, this is Peter Quest, Mr. Quest, this is Kerrison Stuart, my partner.”
Kerry extended a hand politely, and gripped his, then released him. “Mr. Quest.”
“Nice to meet you.” He replied. “Well, Ms. Roberts, as I said, no sense in wasting your time. I’ll leave you to get on with your..day.”
He turned and walked out, leaving Dar and Kerry behind as he disappeared.
Kerry remained silent for a moment, then she turned to Dar. “So, what was that all about?” She asked. “Someone propositioning you, since you’re hanging out in such cutely provocative clothing?”
“Hardly.” Dar pushed herself upright. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll take your clothes off while I fill you in.” She stood and waited for Kerry to join her. “You look like a..”
“Drowned rat?” Kerry sighed, getting up and following her partner. “I feel like a drowned rat that’s been hit on the head with a brick.” She rubbed her neck. “I’m not having a good day.”
Dar slipped her arm around Kerry’s back, ignoring the dampness. “Problems at the show?” She asked. “You should have called me.”
Kerry sighed and fell silent, taking solace in the comfort of Dar’s close presence. “Not the show.” She admitted after they’d entered the elevator. “I got pegged by both our new little friends and I think I lost it with them. They pissed me off.”
“Uh oh.” Dar chuckled softly. “Did you draw blood?”
“It’s not funny, Dar.” Kerry muttered. “I told them both off.”
Dar slid her keycard into door and opened it, then held it open as Kerry entered. She followed her partner inside and closed the door, blinking as she realized housekeeping had been in and cleaned the room while she’d been gone. Somehow, they’d managed to make the bed and place the laptop in it’s exact position where she’d left it. “Glad I locked the screen.”
Kerry took off her jacket and laid it across the back of a chair. She didn’t look up when Dar came over to her, but as a pair of a warm, strong hands touched her neck and began to massage it she turned her head to the side and brushed the nearer one with her lips. “So what was that guy all about?”
“Had an offer I refused.” Dar said. “But now I’m not sure I should have.”
“Mm. Been that kinda day.”
“I may call him.. but I wanted to talk to you first.” Her partner replied, keeping up her rhythmic kneading. “You had lunch?”
Kerry shook her head. The ache in her head was fading, and she felt the tension draining out of her at her partner’s skilled touch. She unbuttoned her skirt and let it slip down, kicking it off to one side and almost tripping as Dar started mixing a few playful nips along with her massage. “So you don’t mind if I blew out any possibility of us being civil to our booth neighbors?”
“Nope.” Dar blew in her ear. “You just saved me the trouble.” She slid her arms around Kerry. “Besides, it might work to our advantage if we end up competing head to head with them for a new services contract.”
Kerry stopped in mid motion and looked over her shoulder. “What?”
“How do you feel about New Zealand?”
Kerry’s brows knit. “New Zealand?” She asked. Wh..”
Dar chuckled. “Let’s get some lunch, and I’ll explain the whole damn thing.” She said. “And you can tell me what happened with Heckle and Jeckle”
“Mmph.” Kerry half turned in Dar’s arms and snuggled up to her, plucking at one of the catches on her overalls. “That’s the best deal I’ve heard all day.” Her eyes fell on the table. “Oh.” She blinked. “Did that come for me?”
“Uh huh.” Dar waited expectantly. “Gonna open it?”
Finally, a smile appeared on Kerry’s face, along with a devilish twinkle in her eyes. “Nope.”
“We’ll never get lunch.” Kerry gave her a quick kiss, and slipped out of Dar’s grasp, heading for her suitcase to get a change of clothes.
Dar looked at her, then turned and looked at the mysterious box. Both eyebrows crawled up into her hairline and a delighted grin appeared. “Ah hah.” She folded her arms. “Couldn’t we just call room service?”
Kerry merely chuckled.
If anything, the hall was even more crowded when they re-entered it. However, the rain had slowed at least, so they were only lightly misted with dampness as they passed from the warm humidity into the chill of the hall.
Kerry ran her eyes over the throng, and spotted Mark making his way back from the snack bar “Mark!”
The MIS manager recognized the hail and paused in mid stride, turning and giving them a wave as he saw them approaching. “Hey.”
“Everything okay?” Dar asked. She’d reluctantly traded her comfortable overalls for a well fitted business suit, and she was aware that her distinctive appearance was already attracting attention from several people in the nearby stream of people. “Looks like a good crowd.”
“Smooth so far, jefe.” Mark nodded. “The marketing goons were looking for you a few minutes ago… some kinda presentation or something.”
Dar frowned and looked at Kerry. “Was I supposed to do one? Someone forget to tell me?”
Kerry was equally surprised. “Not that I know of.” She replied. “I didn’t see your name on the schedule, Dar. I would have mentioned it.”
“I figured you would.” Dar straightened, and peered over the crowd, finding Eleanor standing near the entrance to the hall. “Let me go find out what the hell’s going on.” She made her way forward, easing through the packed lobby with surprising ease.
“You know something? I’m getting really tired of having perfectly good meals ruined by bullpoop.” Kerry shook her head and started after Dar, finding it quite a bit tougher to get through the crush than her taller partner.
She reached Dar’s side in time to see her take up a belligerent stance, however, and deftly avoided Dar’s elbow as the taller woman planted her hands on her hips. “What’s up?”
Eleanor looked more amused than worried. “Oh, her nibs doesn’t want to go show off, that’s all.”
“That is not the point.” Dar growled. “Where do you get off volunteering me for a dog and pony show?” She kept her voice low, but the anger behind it was real.
“C’mon, Dar.. I thought you’d love it.. you and a couple other geeks up there talking over everyone’s head.. what more could you ask for?” The marketing VP protested.
Dar glanced around, spotting a small vending room just off to one side. She took hold of Eleanor’s arm and turned, pulling the smaller woman with her as she started for the alcove. Biting off a protest, Eleanor did her best to keep up, as Kerry slid up on the opposite side of her and helped clear the way with brief smiles and somewhat charming ‘excuse me’s.’
“Hey. If you two are gonna put me in cement boots, lemme call home first, okay?” Eleanor said, in an exasperated tone as they reached the room and entered it. “C’mon now. This is business, Dar!”
“Yeah.” Dar whirled and let her temper ignite. “It’s business.”
Eleanor took a step back out of pure instinct. “Now, Dar.” She held up both hands. “Just take it easy. I’ll go tell them you’re not interested. I don’t need a screaming match with you in here.”
Dar held her eyes with fierce intensity. “I wasn’t going to scream.”
“Whoa, whoa whoa.” Kerry stepped between them, putting a hand on Dar’s back. “Hang on, guys.” She kept her voice gentle. “Let’s do a zen break here.”
Dar swiveled her head around. “Zen break?”
Kerry’s objective was to break Dar’s single minded focus, and she congratulated herself silently on doing it in one try. It wasn’t easy, and despite their relationship she always held her breath when she did it. “Dar, you’re right.”
“Damn friggen straight I am.” The dark haired woman snorted. Eleanor sighed audibly.
“But that aside, would it really tank you to do it?” Kerry asked. “You and some nerds…talking electronic gears and sprockets.. sounds more fun than listening to Jose’s repetitive bs all afternoon.”
Dar scowled at her. “Kerrison.”
Mild green eyes watched her. “Would it?” Kerry asked, relying on the simple logic of her argument. “I mean, yeah, I know how you feel, Dar. I would feel the same way if someone volunteered me for something without me knowing.” She turned to Eleanor. “You didn’t do that, did you?”
“Crossed my mind.” Eleanor admitted.
Kerry’s eyebrows hiked up. “Eleanor, that really is inappropriate.” She said. “We don’t work for you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” The other woman held up a hand. “Look, I’m sorry.” She said. “I honestly didn’t think you’d give a damn, Dar. You’ve got to be here anyway, I figured you’d have some fun.”
“I make my own fun.” Dar growled. However, she straightened a little and moved closer to Kerry, relaxing her posture. “Damn it, Eleanor, don’t do this shit to me.” She poked the other woman in the shoulder, then brushed past her. “Or I’ll make sure your entire department works on scratch pads with VGA screens.”
Out of Eleanor’s line of sight, Kerry gave her partner a pat on the butt, then watched as she stalked across the lobby and ducked inside the hall. Her head then turned to regard Eleanor. She put her hands on her hips. “What was that?”
Eleanor shrugged. “Y’know, I didn’t even think about it.” She admitted. “These days, we forget sometimes what Dar used to be like. I just got reminded. I’ll remember next time.”
Kerry was at a loss for words briefly. “Oh, I don’t know, Eleanor.. I mean..”
“Don’t you dare say it.” The marketing vp cut her off. “Don’t you dare say she hasn’t change, Kerry. We both know different. You remember what it was like when you first started. You remember walking into meetings representing ops and having people cheer.”
Kerry did remember that. “Mm.” She nodded briefly. “Damn, I hated the place.” She admitted. “I wanted to just throw up most afternoons.”
Eleanor had the grace to look uncomfortable. “Anyway, it’s been a huge difference, and even though some things probably got done faster the old way, I wouldn’t trade for it. I used to dread staff meetings.” She peered back into the lobby, which had started to empty. “She isn’t intimidating the entire industry anymore, and yeah, we probably lost out because of it, but I don’t care.”
Kerry’s brow creased. “You don’t’ really think that, do you?” She queried. “That we lost sales because Dar isn’t screaming at everyone all the time?”
“Well.” Eleanor turned and leaned one shoulder against the wall. “It’s tempting, isn’t it? Easier to think it’s because of that than because me and Jose aren’t doing our jobs.” A sardonic look crossed her face. “Nah, I don’t really think that. The market’s just turned towards smaller companies right now. Everyone thinks it’s better economics.”
“But it really isn’t.” Kerry relaxed. “In the long run.”
“Mm.” Her companion gave a half shake of her head. “Doesn’t help my quarterly earnings statement though.” She gave Kerry a wry look. “Want to go hear the old grump blow the new kids on the block away? They have no idea I volunteered her.”
An irrepressible grin appeared on Kerry’s face. “You’ve got a mean streak yourself, El.” She gestured towards the hall. “Sure, let’s go.”
Dar paused at the edge of the open space, reviewing the small group of men clustered on a single step mini-stage. Two she knew slightly, senior technical managers in the industry she’d met earlier that year at a networking function, and three others whose names she’d heard around. All men, all in their thirties, all with that air of not quite management about them that technical people did tend to have; pleated chinos with sports jackets, or workmanlike suits.
Dar halted briefly to shed her annoyance at Eleanor, and then she eased her way through the last line of watchers and took the one step up onto the platform. “Afternoon, gentlemen.”
The five men, and what apparently was a moderator turned at the sound of her voice. The two men who knew who she was immediately took on what Dar had always thought of as the dirty diaper attitude, and she realized it had been quite a while since she’d seen it.
The moderator stepped forward and extended a hand. “Ah, Ms. Roberts? Glad you could join us.”
Dar gripped his fingers in hers then released them. “Anytime.” She drawled, turning her eyes on the two men nearest her. “Hello, John. How’s that experiment with consumer grade switches going?”
The man she addressed winced. “We.. ah.. well, we went a different route with that one, Dar. Thanks for asking!” He turned to his companion. “Ted, you know Dar Roberts, don’t you?”
“Uh.. sure.” Ted extended his hand gingerly. “We bumped into each other at the IEEE conference a couple months back.. great presentation you did there.”
“Thanks.” Dar replied graciously, giving the other three a brief nod as the moderator made introductions. “So what’s the deal with this? We talking about IP v6, or something really earth shattering like the latest security holes in SNMP?”
“Eh.. hah.” The moderator finished putting some stools in place for his guests. “Well, securing our networks was the topic.. ah yes.”
“Mm.” Dar claimed the last stool on one side and settled onto it, letting her eyes run idly over the crowd as the rest of the speakers got into place. She spotted Shari’s distinctive features near the back but let her eyes just pass right over her, settling instead on the blond woman who had picked a perch on a nearby booth that was a foot higher than the floor.
Kerry gave her a thumbs up. Dar rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, but directed a wink her partners way nonetheless.
“Okay, folks.” The moderator clapped his hands. “Let’s get this debate going.”
“Debate?” Dar chuckled. “Eleanor screwed up again. She picked the wrong one of us.”
John leaned closer. “Sorry, did you say something, Dar?”
“No.” Dar replied.
“The question we’re posing here… “ The moderator glared surreptitiously at them. “Are our networks safe?” He asked. “With all the stuff we’ve been hearing in the news lately.. Internet sites hacked, credit cards stolen, drive by hacking… are you all worried? Are your networks safe?”
Dar watched the speakers glance at each other, waiting to see who was going first. “That’s an idiotic question.” She threw out the sentence, just to stir up a little fun.
“Wh.. what?” The moderator stammered.
“That’s an idiotic question.” Dar repeated, a little slower for him. “Do you really think anyone here is going to stand up in front of potential customers and their peers and say ‘why no.. my network’s a positive sieve! Thanks for bringing it up!”
The other men on the platform chuckled a little and John nodded, gesturing in Dar’s direction. “Yeah, what she said.”
Discomfited, the moderator cleared his throat. “Okay, okay, I see your point. But what if.. “ He paused. “Okay, what if I brought a hacker up here, onto the platform, and he said he could break into any of your networks. What would you say to him?”
The other four looked at each other, then in unison, they looked at Dar.
“Want a job?” Dar remarked, with a grin.
The entire crowd started laughing.
“Ms. Roberts, it’s a serious question.” The moderator desperately tried to yank control back.
Dar got up and stuck her hands in the pockets of her skirt. “Of course it is.” She replied. “We all pump a significant portion of our collective budgets into hardening our networks.” A half tilt of her head. “But to answer your question, no.”
“No, nothing’s ever perfect.” Dar shook her head. “You can put machinery and manpower into it until you’re blue in the face, but somewhere there’s gonna be a hole. There’s too many places where it’s possible and sometimes out of your control.”
John nodded again. “Dar’s right.” He said, then paused. “Well, of course, because Dar’s always right, and we all know it.”
The crowd laughed again. Dar responded with a relatively gracious smile. Her eyes caught a motion at the back of the crowd, the distraction turning out to be Shari having a some what animated discussion with Michelle.
They were arguing. Dar’s eyebrows hiked, as she caught a gesture in her direction. But Michelle got a firm hold on Shari’s arm and just started pulling her away.
Hm. Dar’s eyes slid to her left, seeing Kerry’s head turned in that direction.
“But you know, we really have made some strides in that area.. let me go over some of them.” John went on.
“Wait a minute.” A stocky man in a light gray suit interjected. “Lemme just ask.. hey, lady.”
Dar gazed at him.
“You really hire hackers?” The man asked. “I mean, that’s a big story.. that ILS hires hackers.” He turned and got agreement from those next to him. “As a customer, I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“You ever been compromised?” Dar asked.
“No.. I mean, not that I know of.” The man replied.
“Like you’d tell them?” Shari’s voice cut through the crowd.
Out of the corner of her eye, Dar saw Kerry slip down from her perch and start through the crowd like a determined miniature cyclone. The romance of the motion appealed to her, and the chuckle it caused brushed the sound of Shari’s voice form her ears. “Of course we’d tell them.” Dar answered the question in an unruffled tone. “We’ve just never had to.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” The man in gray accused.
“What’s your question?” Dar turned the tables on him. “Are you asking if I ever knowingly hired someone who had deliberately broken into someone else’s computer systems?”
“Sure.” Dar answered.
The other men on the podium were shifting away from her, putting some distance between them as if to disassociate themselves from the very idea.
“But only if they were successful at it.” She continued. “I only hire the best. That’s why our network… “ Her eyes went over the room. “Has never been compromised.”
“Never?” John blurted.
“Never.” Dar said, with quiet certainty. “G’wan. Give it a try.” She threw the challenge out. “Anyone out there got the guts to take us on?” She looked over to where Shari had been, but that was just a hole in the crowd now. Kerry had, ominously, also disappeared.
“Bet your security manager’s not loving you at the moment. “John muttered.
Dar gave him an amused look. “He’d lick his chops at the challenge.”
“Okay, folks.” The moderator finally decided to wrest control back again. “So this turned out to be a pretty interesting subject after all.”
“Very.” The man in gray muttered.
Dar sat down on her stool again and folded her arms. And that, she mused. Would teach Eleanor to volunteer her, wouldn’t it? She felt eyes on her, and she turned her head, not entirely surprised to find her friend Peter Quest nearby, watching her, a grin on his face.
Now he didn’t seem worried about hackers at all. While Dar, on the other hand, was worried about having to bail out a certain green eyed woman she dearly loved.
Time to end the debate.
There were times, and this was one of them, that Kerry cursed the genetic dice throw that doomed her to a life nearly a foot shorter than her partner. She could see her quarry ahead of her, but as she squeezed through the last line of suited bodies and got into the clear, Shari and Michelle were nowhere to be found.
“Son of a bitch.” Kerry stalked towards the booths, half listening to Dar’s damning commentary behind her. The security discussion had started off badly and went down from there, and her bosses blithe confirmation that they hired hackers sure wasn’t going to make her life any easier, but those were minor details.
Shari going out of her way to attack Dar wasn’t. Kerry prowled the aisles, looking for the two women. As she passed her own booth, though, she paused. “Okay, wait a minute.” She collected herself. “Just what are you going to do when you hunt them down, Kerrison?” She asked “Start a cat fight? Bar room brawl in the trade show? That’ll make headlines.”
“Ma’am?” One of her techs scurried over, seeing her standing there. “Did you say something?”
Kerry sighed. “Nothing intelligent, no.” But her eyes kept sweeping the hall anyway, half hoping she’d spot what she was looking for.
“Hey.” Mark appeared. “Dar outed me!” He seemed amazed. “Did you hear that?”
Kerry leaned on the edge of the booth. “I heard it. So did everyone else. I know what I’m going to spend the next two weeks explaining.” She sensed the crowd coming back into the display area in back of her, and without turning, somehow, she just knew Dar was heading her way.
It was a really weird feeling. To test it, Kerry casually turned her head just as Dar cleared the booths one aisle over and came into view. She watched a muted look of relief cross her partner’s face on seeing her, and she felt a little sheepish as Dar hopped up onto the platform with her. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Dar glanced around. “You okay?”
Kerry cleared her throat gently. “If you mean, did I flatten anyone recently, no.” She muttered under her breath. “Boy, did I feel like it. I think you better get me out of here before my hormones land us in libel court.”
“Nah.” Dar grinned. “I’m gonna put you in a tank top with the words “My bodyguard” right across your chest.” She blew a lock of dark hair out of her eyes. “Okay, I think I botched that pretty big time. Sorry.”
“Eh.” Kerry indicated Mark, who was studying a console across the booth. “Most of our clients have worked with Mark for years. It’s not going to be that big a deal. I’ll take care of it.” She laid her hand on Dar’s shoulder. “By the time I’m done, you’ll have started the newest trend in IT hiring.”
Eleanor hurried into the booth from the other side, hauling up as she spotted Dar. “Okay, you win!” She held up both hands. “Next time, I’ll just pass out ILS pens for advertising!”
“Dar!” Jose arrived from the opposite direction, sweating. “Jesu! Could you have warned you were to do that? Dios Mio!”
Dar sniffed. “Got us attention.” She remarked. “Aren’t you the one who’s always says any publicity is good?”
They certainly were becoming the center of attention quickly. The booth was surrounded by curious onlookers, as well as customers now clamoring for attention. The man in gray pushed his way forward, heading right for Dar.
“Is this where I take off and let you all clean up my mess?” Dar inquired, with a faint smirk.
“Just kidding.” Dar faced the crowd and held her own hands up. “Okay, folks. Settle down.”
“I’ve got it.” Her partner told her quietly. “Keep an eye out for our friends. If you see em…”
“Go into my WWF impersonation?” Kerry joked.
Dar turned and regarded her with a puzzled expression. “You going for a panda?”
“Never mind.” Dar turned back to the crowd. “All right. Let’s put this in perspective, shall we?” She raised her voice. “How many people here believe police officers always obey traffic laws?”
“What?” The man in gray spluttered. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Raise you hands.” Dar ignored him. “”C’mon.”
“How can you seriously expect us to trust someone who breaks the law? The man stubbornly kept in her face. “Huh?”
Dar gazed at him. “I’m from Miami.” She reminded him with a slight grin. “We elect felons.”
“Dar.’ Eleanor was getting nervous.
Mark wandered over. “Hey, Mr. T.!” He greeted the man in gray. “How’s that website, still stable?”
The man frowned. “Um.. yes, fine, fine, Mark. Listen, we can discuss that later. Right now I want some answers about this hacker thing.”
Mark leaned over the edge of the booth and lowered his voice. “Hey, Mr. T?”
Annoyed, the man glared at him. “I said…”
“I’m the hacker.” Mark indicated his own chest. “Only I’m like the number two, if you know what I mean.” His thumb inched towards Dar’s towering form. “You’re pretty safe. Don’t sweat it.”
The man in gray goggled at him.
“Okay, so let’s talk about security.” Another man pushed forward. “I don’t give a damn who you hire. You say you can’t be broken into? My site’s been taken offline three times in two months. Tell me how I can stop it.”
“Hire us.” Dar perched on the corner of the counter, letting her hands rest on her thigh as she settled down in a more comfortable element. Her comment drew a few laughs, and she smiled in response. “Seriously. It’s a lot of intensive effort, and a damn substantial budget. You can’t ever stop.. there’s no time where you can take a breath, and say we’re okay.”
“Right.” Mark nodded. “Twenty four seven, we’re out there checking, rechecking, double checking, coming up with new checks… it never stops.”
Kerry eased back and relaxed a little, realizing Dar did, in fact, have the situation very much under control. She leaned back against the booths’ center pylon, releasing a silent sigh of relief. So then, of course, she spotted Shari and Michelle at the fringes of the crowd. Her eyes narrowed, but the two seemed content to just stand and listen.
“What a circus.” Eleanor leaned on the pylon next to Kerry. “Next time I’m gonna send my assistant. I’m going on a cruise instead.”
“Y’know, it’s kind of fun to see the old Dar again, though.” The older woman mused. “I’m just glad she’s pointed that way not this way.”
Kerry exhaled. “I’ll be glad when the damn doors close tonight and we can get the hell out of here.”
Eleanor looked at her, with a puzzled expression. ‘You not feeling well, Ker? You’ve been antsy all day.”
Had she been? Kerry frowned, thinking about her actions since the morning. “Yeah, well…” She shrugged one shoulder. “Between the weather and our friends over there, my last nerve got Fedexed to Fargo around lunchtime.”
Eleanor clapped her on the shoulder, then she groaned and headed off to join Jose. Kerry watched a moment more, then she sat down behind one of the consoles and smiled at a customer brave enough to wander past Dar to look over her shoulder. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The man sat down next to her and looked at the screen. It was currently displaying their top level view, the huge backbones that made up the core of their network. “That’s really impressive.”
“Thanks.” Kerry smiled at him. “It’s a really good design. There’s so much redundancy, even when we try to crash it, we can’t.”
“Bet it cost a pretty penny.” The man grinned back.
“It did, but it’s already paid for itself.” She replied. “Watch this.” Kerry typed in a command, taking down one of the core routing centers and removing it from the network. Other than a little greener pulse, the net barely flickered, rerouting around it in a blink of an eye.
Kerry restored the center before her pager started hitting the roof and watched the routes reestablish themselves. “It’s flexible and self healing. A pleasure to manage.”
“Hi.” The man repeated, holding his hand out. “My name’s Peter Quest.” He took Kerry’s outstretched fingers and clasped them. “People tell me you’re the one to talk to about some new business. That true?”
Kerry’s ears perked up a little. “It could be.” She allowed. “I’m one of the people. What did you have in mind?”
Quest smiled at her again. “Let me ask you something first.” He said, leaning on the counter with an elbow. “Are you up for a challenge? Can you put your name on a dotted line, and go head to head for some business… could turn out to be pretty big?”
Kerry folded her hands. “What are you asking me?” She queried. “Can I negotiate a contract for ILS? Of course.”
“Even if someone else in your company already said no?”
“Well.” Kerry sat back. “Maybe. Why don’t you tell me what your pitch is, and then we’ll talk about it.”
Quest nodded, with a satisfied look. “That’s all I’m asking for.” He leaned forward. “Here’s the deal.”