Standard Disclaimers - I don't need any for this story. All the characters are mine. (laugh) I should probably disclaimer my use of my own company, but I won't, unless temptation gets too great, and I name the big boss "Les." Whoops.. I did that, but any resemblence to anyone real is coincidental. (the real one is one of the nicest people I've ever met, honestly)

What this is: This is an Uber story. (Oooo… that Uber stuff!) You get a general physical description likeness of the two gals in the story that will remind you of two old friends we all know well, but that's about it. The time period of this Uber is right now, and the place is Miami, Florida.

Why Miami? Well, I live here. Not only do I live here, but I've lived here for thirty years. That means I know all the stupid little quirks of the area, and since I'm going to give this Uber a stab, I might as well not overstress myself with doing research on an area I don't know. (Right? Right.)

The world my Uber darlings inhabit is my personal world - not that I'm a dungeon master or anything silly like that, but I do work for a company called EDS, and we do Information Technologies - we outsource IS to other companies, and absorb their own IS facilities and staff. In other words, we are the EDS Borg - you will be assimilated - Resistance is Futile. (I'm not making this up) The two characters will work and play in an area that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole however - so they're not autobiographical. I do technical and network support - I stay away from the business end of EDS, because that's the end you get stuck with, and not in a friendly place, if you know what I mean.

This isn't specifically EDS, but I've tried to maintain the flavor of our hierarchy though…and the goofiness that sometimes goes on behind the running of a megalithic corporation. The descriptions of our mainframes, however, are fictitious, along with any names of persons involved, and the various office locations with the exception of Plano. EDS does have it's corporate hq there.

Fisher Island, the place where Dar Roberts lives, is a real place. I used to work there. The descriptions of it are circa 1990 though - it's been built up a lot since then with more condos and stuff. All the places, and restaurants, and streets, and causeways are real. I didn't see any need to make them up, when Miami is a colorful enough place in real life without me doing that. It's kind of a tribute to my hometown - because I happen to really like it here.

Dar and Kerry are not super spies, or undercover agents, or renegades of any kind. They're not running from the law, or taking over third world countries (EDS runs a few, though) or anything like that. You might find their lives boring… I can't help that.. there's not going to be a lot of car chases, or gun battles, though this is Miami, and we're a pretty tough city, so anything can happen.

It's just a story about two people, who meet under very usual circumstances, and happen to change each other's lives.

Tropical Storm - Part 3

By Melissa Good

The alarm was buzzing, an annoying sound in any case, and moreso because it was a Saturday morning. In the dim light, one blue eye appeared, glared at the device, then a hand shot out from the covers and clobbered the clock, sending it flying from the bedside table and unplugging it.

"Yeow." Dar cursed and grabbed her hand, rolling up onto her other elbow and wincing as she examined her knuckles. The entire back of her hand was swollen, and discolored and she dropped back down onto the pillows as she recalled how it got that way. "Forgot about that." She mumbled, closing her eyes again.

She'd forgotten how hard the human skull was, and how much it hurt if you hit it head on, without any protection. Not , she reflected, that she would have chosen any differently even if she had remembered - the solid crack had felt very… satisfying.. at least before the pain hit, and she didn't regret the damage she'd done to that one of Kerry's attackers, or the rest of them, for that matter. She'd used kicks for that, though.. infiintely easier on the body.

But now she could barely close her fist, and she knew it was going to be a couple of days before that changed. "Hey... look dad.. " She whispered to the ceiling, holding her hand up. "I'm a hero. Imagine that."

It was damn lucky for Kerry that she'd been so close… she'd driven out to Haulover Park to the north, and spent a half hour just roaming aimlessly up and down the boardwalk, watching the young kids in their puppy loves go past. She'd actually been getting off on the 2nd street exit when Kerry had called, intent on stopping at Bayside for some ice cream before she headed back to the office to finish up.

Instead of ice cream she'd gotten trouble, a sore hand, a last minute financial brainstorm, and…her mind conjured up a picture of Kerry's slim form, swaddled in a too large sweatshirt, standing at her car window as she dropped the younger woman off. She'd put a hand on Dar's arm, and squeezed it.

"I'll bring the shirt back to you on Monday.. thanks for letting me borrow it."

Dar had waved her off, a little embarassed. "Keep it.. I've got dozens and dozens of them… believe me." She'd glanced around, seeing the Mustang parked nearby, it's window neatly taped. "You going to be all right with that?"

The green eyes had followed hers, and Kerry had sighed. "Yeah…one of the guys here works in a auto body shop…he's a pretty good friend of mine." Then she'd looked up, and taken a breath. "Thanks for coming to my rescue.. and I'm glad the whole thing worked out okay."

Dar had smiled. "Me too." She'd patted Kerry's arm. "Get some rest.. I'll talk to you on Monday."

And that had been that. She'd driven away, checking her rear view mirror a few times just to make sure the blond woman had gotten inside okay, and put herself on auto pilot for the long, rainy drive home.

Now she listened, and heard the patter of rain outside still, and tucked her arm under her pillow with a satisfied grunt. No running today. Today was just time to snuggle into the warmth of the waterbed, pull the covers up, and catch up on some much needed sleep.

She was just drifting off again when the phone rang.

Dar sighed. "No one's home."

It continued ringing, and she finally reached over, and hit the speakerphone button. "Yeah?"

"Good morning, Dar." The voice sounded complacently pleased.

"What do you want at six am, Dukky?" Dar muttered. "I sent the updates last night."

"Oh.. I know." The smile was audible. "I just wanted to compliment you on some really briliant financial footwork there."

"At six am?" Dar sighed. "You could have sent me an email."

"Actually, that's why I'm calling…the word's out you got a head." Duks stated. "Mariana has gotten four inquiries already… when you do.. um.. wake up.. would you please send her over exactly what you're looking for before the poor dear gets swamped?"

Dar let her eyes open sleepily. "Duks.. it's only been posted for six goddamn hours." She protested. "I didn't think I was that popular."

The VP chuckled wryly. "I hate to break this to you, my friend, but you're not. Everyone's convinced this means you're vacating that lovely office.. and they want a shot at it." He cleared his throat. "Especially since the posting came from Les' personal logon."

"That's.. not what it means for crying… " Dar groaned. "Jesus, Duks.. I just asked for a little help, that's all.. I wanted an assistant, not a replacment."

A small silence. "Dar Roberts asking for help… that's stretching it." Duks replied slowly. "You have particular.. in mind?"

Now it was Dar's turn to be silent. "I don't know." She finally said. "Maybe."

"Mm." The accountant acknowledged the unspoken information. "Be careful, Dar…that could be a dangerous position for you. Pick someone who's not going to immediately stab you in the back." He cleared his throat. "It doesn't pay to let people get on the inside, you know?"

Dar gazed at the dresser, shadowy in the pre dawn gloom. "I know." She replied softly. "Thanks for the warning, Dukky." There was a click as he hung up. She rolled over, and regarded the ceiling soberly. Complications already. She'd used her momentary leverage to get the position approved, not really thinking about the consequences, or how it would look.

She hadn't really even considered… no, that was a lie. She'd been thinking exactly of Kerry when she'd asked for it… and that had seemed like such an ingenious solution at the time. The woman had talent and potential, she was sharp… she'd been a good addition to the team.

But what about Kerry? She'd been hurt by the entire situation with her company.. did Dar want to expose her to the many times more vicious enviornment inside the upper levels of the corporation? Was that fair to the kid?

Was she even really interested? She seemed like she was last night, but… that could have been overtiredness, and a reaction to the day. The morning surely would bring a more sensible attitude, and Dar quietly hoped the young woman would at least reconsider, and remain with the Associated account.

She didn't like to see talent leave the company. Right?

Dar pulled the covers up over her head and sighed. Oh Dar… lie to everyone but yourself, remember? You like the little imp. She reminds you of what you used to be like, a long time ago. All principles and honor.

Now look. Is that what you want for her, too? Leave her where she is..or let her go and find something else.. a small place where she doesn’t have to be exposed to people like ….you. A heaviness settled over Dar's chest unexpectedly.

It was a quiet depression that she'd been experiencing more and more often lately, making her question what the point was in doing what she did, in going the places she went. A feeling of hopelessness that made her want to just curl up in a ball here in the dark, and never leave.

Her solution so far was to throw herself into yet more work, which usually distracted her enough to make the feeling go away.

With a sigh, she pulled the covers back and slid out of bed, trudging across the bathroom and flipping the light on. She used the facilities then splashed a few handfuls of water over her face, stopping to regard her reflection warily. Bloodshot blue eyes looked back at her, accented by dark shadows which added years to her age.

She turned and flipped the light off, moving out into the living room to where her briefcase rested on the coffee table. She unzipped it and pulled her laptop out, plugging it in the built in cord specifically for that purpose, and booting it up. Then she went into the kitchen and stared at the coffee machine, bypassing it and going to the refrigerator instead. She poured a glass of milk from the dispenser, then added three squirts of chocolate syrup to the glass and mixed it. She sipped at the beverage as she seated herself on the long, leather couch, and punched the buttons that would start a connection to the office.

A flick of the control turned on the large screen TV while she was waiting, and she flicked through the cable channels, bypassing CNN and MSNBC and settling on the Cartoon Network, which was showing Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

"Better commentary than Dan Rather." She muttered, as she glanced down, watching her email download. She leaned back against the cushions, then decided to lay down full length, and balance the laptop on her stomach. She let her eyes scan down the listings then her eyes brightened a little. "Tch tch.. told you to go to bed last night, kid."

She clicked on the email anyway.

Kerry Stuart - Sent 1:01 AM


I know you're thinking - what is this crazy woman doing, sending mail at 1am after a day like today? Well, I didn't start out to do that - I took a shower, and got changed, and fluffed up my pillows, and answered the two frantic messages on my machine because people saw my car towed back here, and then I was just laying there figuring this sleep thing wasn't going to be a problem.

But I kind of got to thinking, that there was something I hadn't done, and it kept bugging me and bugging me until I just gave up and figured out what it was.

It was deciding what I wanted to do, as in, with my life at this point, and I know you're probably sitting there reading this thinking I've flipped my lid, but.. I haven't.

If you're serious about posting that position you were talking about, I'm going to apply for it. I know there are probably ten thousand other people more qualified, but I have this crazy idea that maybe I can find better ways for people to do things, so that it's not so brutal, and it doesn't hurt people inside just to do business.

That's pretty naive sounding. I sound like some Midwestern rube just out of certification school, don’t I? Yikes.

So anyway, what I did was logon, and I found that posting of yours, and I submitted a formal request for consideration for it. I also attached my resume, like it said - though figuring out where to click in that CAS application is a real pain in the neck, you know? I feel better now, and I think I'll be able to sleep.

I know I don't have much of a chance at it - it's so weird to think that I was cursing your name before dinner time, and hoping I get to work for you at midnight.

If you can squeeze me back into my old job, though. that would be fantastic. Monday is going to be really crazy, and there's one thing I forgot to thank you for - and that was the severance packages. It changes firing someone from a hateful sentence, to what I can present as a good chance for change, so that these people can find something else, without having the pressure of bills hanging over their heads. You don't know how much that means.. especially since four of the people have school age children who were covered under the insurance.

Thank you, Dar. I really mean that.

Have a great weekend.



Dar felt a grin coming on, and she let it, as she read the mail twice over. Then she very deliberately logged into her CAS session, and reviewed her worklist. An eyebrow went up when she saw the thirty or so responses, and she scanned the names.

All qualified, pretty much. Most junior, but a few senior account managers, with lots of experience in what she did. Several candidates, in fact, were already assistants to other VP's. Good, solid employees, with stable backgrounds, and excellent references.

She clicked on Kerry's submission, and reviewed it. Absolutely no experience in any facet of what she did. Absolutely no experience in multiple markets, no experience overseas, no experience in corporate takeovers.

A reckless, piratical gleam entered Dar's blue eyes.

It was so easy. Two clicks, and an F3 submit key. "Oh look." Dar did it before she could stop and think better of anything. "I just hired an assistant." She took a deep breath. "Isn't technology wonderful?"

Mariana was going to kill her. Company regulations stipulated that she had to interview and evaluate each candidate, and produce written documentation to back up her choice. She clicked over to mail.

Mari -

Just hired Kerry Stuart from the Associated Synergenics account as my assistant. Please process her paperwork - I figured it would be easier on you since she's technically an outside candidate - you can hire and transition her all at once.

Bring her in as a 10, standard package, the works - I'll send her over to fill out forms some time next week.

I know everyone will bitch - just tell them manager's discretion, and they can see me personally if they have a problem.


A loophole. Dar loved loopholes. Bringing in Kerry as an outside posting would circumvent most of the hysteria, and she could just ignore the rest. Mariana was used to that anyway…manager's discretion was a watchword in the company. A lot of the rules were left deliberately vague, and you had to take responsibility for what you decided.

Dar always had. Even when the decisions had turned out wrong, she still refused to hide behind anyone, and took the brunt of the blame on her own shoulders. It was the one thing that kept everyone, even those people who hated her… and there were a lot of those, it was the one thing that everyone respected her for. When Dar Roberts made a decision, she stood behind it, one hundred percent.

With a grin, she rubbed her hands together, then took a long drink of her chocolate milk before she started typing.


Got your note.

Attached to this email you'll find corporate policies and procedures, including the dress code. You might want to take a look at that. Jeans are not allowed during normal business hours.

I estimate it should take about a week to get the paperwork completed, and that will give you a chance to settle your current assignment. Call me if you have any questions.



With a sense of inevitability, she hit send. She still had some doubts, still had some questions as to whether she was doing the right thing for Kerry, but… it was done. Time would tell if this was a good decision, or one of the ones she lived to regret.

"So.. what happened?" The tall, dark skinned man asked, his eyes on the broken window.

"Um…. A rock." Kerry muttered. "Must have… fell off the highway, or something."

Brown eyes gave her a disbelieving stare. "C'mon, honey… you got to give me something better than that…" Jerry wagged a finger at her. "You have a new boyfriend, maybe? You get in a, how you call, a fight?"

Kerry laughed softly. "Uh.. no.. no.. no new boyfriend.. I .. " She glanced around. "Jerry, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.. some guys just decided to take a crack at the car…I got away." She made a face. "I don't want to make a big deal about it.. I didn't see them, so…"

"Ah hah." Jerry waggled his fingers at her. "I got you.. no problem." He studied the car. "Sixty dollars."

"Great." The blond woman smiled, and handed over the keys. "You're a lifesaver."

"Cherry, I hope." The man laughed. "My favorite flavor." He patted her on the shoulder. "Hey.. did you get cut?" He lifted her hand, and studied it. "Looks like you hit something."

"Um… " Kerry ran her fingers through her hair. "An accident."

Jerry looked at her, serious now. He tipped her chin up so she had to look him in the eye. "Girlfriend, are you in trouble?"

"No." She shook her head positively. "I almost was, last night…but someone showed up, and chased the guys off, and I was fine, really.. they even gave me a ride back here."

"Mmhm… was he nice? Was he a gentleman?" Jerry inquired.

Kerry bit off a grin. "He was a she." Her eyes twinkled a little. "And she…was wonderful."

"Ahhhhhh… okay." The mechanic chuckled. "I'll finish this probably tonight, maybe tomorrow, okay?"

She nodded. "Great."

Colleen came up behind her, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, girl."

Kerry turned and smiled. "Hey… listen, thanks for calling last night.. sorry I gave you a scare yesterday." She motioned towards the door to her apartment. "Come on inside.. it's wet out here."

The redhead followed her, closing the door behind them, and moving quickly across to where Kerry was standing, stacking printouts she no longer needed on her desk. "So… now tell me everything." Her voice was eager. "I could have killed you last night… five words and you're gone."

Kerry finished her task, then grinned, and pulled her friend over to the couch. "Sit… it's a long story…" She waited for Colleen to sit down then she tucked her legs up under her and leaned an arm on the back of the couch. "Well.. where do I start?"

She told Colleen the whole story, watching the other woman's jaw drop in amazement.

"Whoa.. whoa.. whoa…hold on just a Jesus, Mary and Joseph minute." She held her hand up. "Let me get this tale straight… you found out you all were gonna be fired, so you drove out to the key, then you run out of gas on the way back, get stuck near the tracks in downtown, get carjacked, then you get rescued, like, a full blown caped crusader flying to the rescue kind of thing, by Dar Roberts. Am I clear on this so far?"

"Um… essentially, yes." Kerry grinned. "Only she made like it was nothing.. like she just sort of happened by, and the guys ran off or something.. but I know she had to have done something to them, because her hands were all banged up, and I heard at least one of the guys scream."

"Wow." Colleen squealed. "Is she.. like.. into karate or something?"

"Mmm…. " Kerry thought about that. "I don't know… but I think she's into something.. she's got all these muscles all up and down her arms.. like here. " She patted her shoulders. "And when she walks, she kinda…well, you can tell she doesn’t just sit around her office all day."

"Ooo…. " Colleen giggled. "So.. what was she doing.. wandering the streets looking for damsels in distress to save?"

"Tch.. " Kerry slapped her leg. "No.. actually.. I.. um.. I called her.. no, don't look at me like that, okay? I had this number she told me to use if I had any problems with her goon squad.. I figured it was some flunky of hers, so I called it, I thought I could get him to call Triple A or something for me."

"But it wasn't, huh?" Colleen looked fascinated. "This is more and more intriguing."

"No… no, it was her.. " Kerry admitted. "So I hung up.. but she called back… and she asked me where I was.. I felt like such an idiot telling her I ran out of gas.. but.. " She sighed. "Anyway, these guys came at me, and I told her to call the police, then they hit the car, and it got really scary.. then the next thing I knew, they were gone, and she was there." The blond woman chuckled a little. "Boy.. for someone I was hating a half hour before, I sure was glad to see her. "

'So… you're fired, though?" Colleen said, concerned. "What are you going to do?"

"Well.. I'm not.. actually.. see, we went back to her office after the whole thing.. and she went over the numbers again.. and she finally had a brainstorm or something… and she worked it out so we were okay." Kerry took a breath. "It was pretty amazing.. she told some big boss of hers she'd been working on whatever this thing was for forty eight hours without sleep."

"Jesus!" The redhead snorted. "So, you're not fired."

"No." Her friend agreed.

"And .. she's not so bad?"

A smile. "No." Kerry shook her head. "She's really not.. I mean, she's all business, right? And I think she'd fire someone like most other people would just blow their nose or whatever.. but towards the end of the night, she was kind of just okay.. and I got the feeling we could actually.. sort of get along, if we really wanted to."

Colleen whistled. "My boss wouldn't believe it.. you should hear how he talks about her.. you'd think she was the daughter of the devil himself."

Kerry looked up as her PC chimed. "Whoops…" She got up and checked the screen. "Mail, on Saturday?" But a thrill of anticipation ran up her back as she opened the program, scanning the inbox and letting out a soft breath as she saw the first name on the list. "Well.. speaking of Dar Roberts…" She clicked on the message, and read it, then read it again. "What in… "

Colleen had stepped up behind her, and peered over her shoulder. "What does that mean?" She puzzled at it. "Why do you need to worry about their dress code? You don't work in that building."

"Uh." Kerry closed the message, then opened a terminal session, and thumbed through her notes as she requested a logon to the mainframe. "Okay..I press this, then go here…login, password… oh, hell… okay, try it again.. ah." She accessed her own employee files, then stared at the main screen in disbelief. "Oh…sugarbaker."

"What?" Colleen peered at the screen. "What's an ORGID?" She asked. "It sounds disgusting."

"She did it." Kerry breathed, her fingertip tracing the change in her department, and location, and….her supervisor.

Roberts, D

"She did what?" The redhead poked her. "C'mon, Ker… spill it..what's going on here?"

"She hired me." Kerry mumbled.

"I thought you were already hired?" Came the puzzled response.

"Well.. yeah, but she had this…I mean, she hired me to work for her." Kerry responded, dazed. "She was looking for an assistant."

"Jesus Mary mother of God." Colleen squeaked. "YOU are going to be Dar Robert's assistant????" She pounded on Kerry's back. "You??? Oh my god!!!!"

"Ow!!" Kerry ducked out of the way. "Cut that out… I've got scratches from that stupid glass…" But she felt exhilarated. "And.. yeah… I guess I'm going to work for her.. I didn't expect her to make a decision so fast.. but now that I think about it… it doesn't surprise me. I don't think she likes to dawdle around stuff."

Whoooooo!!! Inside, she was jumping up and down. "Wow."

"Okay, girl… tonight, we party." Colleen decided. "You need to go out and celebrate.. because let me tell you, from what I hear? You wont' get a chance to breathe once you start working for her." She tugged Kerry's sleeve. "Let's do Cocowalk, and hit the Improv, then have a late dinner at Monte's… I'll get Pete and Reggie.. and a few other people around here, okay?"

Kerry grinned. "Sure.. that sounds fun… I can do that.." She agreed. "Tomorrow… ye gods.. I'll have to go clothes shopping… I don't have anything good enough for that mausoleum…it's huge."

"… " Colleen waved her hands. "I'll go shopping too, I'd love to see you in some fancy power suits for a change… this is gonna be great." She stood up. "I'll be back… you stay right here, Ms. High and Mighty corporate executive."

Kerry rolled her eyes. "Okay… I've got to find out what the rest of this mail is, anyway… it's after 2, you want to meet in front of her at five?"

"You betcha." Colleen agreed, then bustled off. "Hey.. I'll invite Gary… he really likes you."

The blond woman waved a hand at her. "Fine.. fine.. just tell him not to talk about his job all the time, okay? "

"Kerry.. he can't help working at the Water and Sewer plant." The redhead chided her. "He's very excited about it."

Green eyes peered over the monitor at her.

"Okay..okay.. I'm outta here." Colleen laughed. "I'll tell him."

Kerry sat back, as the door closed, and reread her mail for the third time. "Man, oh man… I can't believe it." She eyed the phone. "Guess I"d better let the folks in on this." She picked up the receiver and dialed a number, waiting until she heard a voice answer. "Mom."

"Oh.. hello, Kerry." Her mother's flat, even tone replied. "I wasn't expecting you until tonight… is there a problem?"

"No.. no.. I got some good news.. I thought I'd pass it along." Kerry answered quietly. "I was promoted."

"That's nice dear… I thought perhaps you were going to say you'd given up that strange city, and were coming home.. what kind of promotion was it?"

"Well, we were bought out… I think I told you that was happening last week. "

"Oh? Oh yes.. you mentioned it." Cindy Stuart recalled. "Your father was saying he's had dealings with that company."

"Mm.. yes, they're pretty big… there was an opening there, on the operations team. I applied for it, and they took me." Kerry told her carefully. "I'm… well, I've got to go shopping for some new clothes tomorrow… "

A note of concern entered her mother's voice. "You haven't been putting on weight again, have you dear?"

"Oh.. " Kerry reassured her. "No.. in fact, I lost a few pounds, the last few days… um.. no, it's… well, I'm going to be the assistant to one of their Vice Presidents, so I have to dress up."

"Oh?" Now her mother sounded more interested. "Really? That sounds more…well, you have to make sure you make a good impression… you have a Macy's down there, isn't that right?"

"Well, yes, but.. "

"Excellent.. take my card, dear, and you go pick out some nice new outfits… something in green, I think, would look good with your hair… has it gotten lighter? It did last summer… and make sure you get nice shoes, not those awful pumps you usually wear." A pause. "Harold? Harold, is that you? It's Kerry on the phone… dear, she's going to be working for one of their Vice presidents… isn't that splendid?"

A rustle, then her father's deep voice rumbled down the line. "Kerry?"

"Yes, father." Kerry answered quietly. "It's true.. I got promoted."

"Well well.. that's nice… glad to see they recognize quality when they see it.. not like that little pissant company you worked for… this is good news. " He cleared his throat. "Who will you be working for? I know a bunch of their upper echelon people… naturally, since we do bidding for the state, and they're a major contractor.."

"Dar Roberts." Kerry tasted the name, rolling it around in her mouth with a kind of pleasure.

A moments' silence. "Jesus." Her father barked. "That's not just one of their VP's, little girl… she's the top dog in that kennel.. we've been trying to get a bead on her for… " His voice trailed off. "Well, well, never mind that.. this could be of great value to me, though…good work, Kerry… very good. I'm very proud of you."

Kerry felt a tense smile edge her lips. "Thank you." She heard her mother's voice in the background.

"I've told her to take my Macy's card, Harold, and get herself dressed to impress these people."

"Good idea, honey." Her father's voice returned. "You listen to your mother, you hear? You go out to the store, and you buy stuff that's gonna knock their socks off, all right?"

"I'll.. do my best, father." Kerry replied.

"I want you to send pictures, all right?" Came the gruff demand. "I want to make sure you're giving the right impression.. this could be very valuable to me." A pause. "I was going to bring you home… we were thinking of having the wedding in the spring, but this… this could be worth the wait."

"I'll send pictures, I promise."

"Good. Here, talk to your mother. "

"Your father is very excited, dear." Her mother's voice sounded smug. "I haven't seen him this enthusiastic since that Tripp woman surfaced. " She paused. "Your sister's pregnant again, by the sure to congratulate her when you talk to her later."

"I will…thanks.. when did she find out?"

"Last week.. but we suspected for awhile now." Her mother responded. "Of course, Barry has such an ugly face.. I'm waiting for you and Brian to give me beautiful grandchildren." A rustle. "Well, I have to go dear, you run along to the store, and have a good time."

"Thanks, mother.. I'll try." Kerry sighed, as she hung up and stared at the receiver in mild disgust. "Glad that's over." She turned her attention back to her mail, and sat down, cracking her knuckles as she started a reply to Dar's message.


Wow.. she thought to herself. I like that name. I wonder what it's short for?

You move really fast, did anyone ever tell you that? You nearly gave me a heart attack when I checked my status in CAS.

Okay - I got the attachment - I'm kind of lost, though - can you give me some tips on what is appropriate to wear at the office? I guess a trip to Macy's is in order - but I'd love it if you'd give me a hint, since I know you have no problem in that area.

Well, it's been quite a week - my friends are all taking me out tonight to the Improve, and then Monte's, because they tell me I won't have a chance to breathe once I start working for you.

I hope that's true. I'm really excited - I hope I don't disappoint anyone.


It felt a little strange - to be sending such a casual mail to this person, this…she wasn't sure what she thought about Dar Roberts, but she had a feeling she'd know a lot more about her soon enough.

Dar pulled into the mall parking lot, and swung into a spot in the rear of the north end, where not many people parked. She didn't mind the walk, though, and it was worth it to her not to have to struggle with the crowds nearer to the stores. She locked the Lexus, then tucked her keys away into the small pouch she had slung over her shoulder, and headed towards the cluster of buildings.

It was weird. She hated shopping. She had no real idea why she'd answered Kerry's mail yesterday with an offer to meet her here and help her pick new clothes.. what in hell was she thinking of? Especially up here at Aventura, home of batty socialites, condo commandos, and the snowbird flock from Hell.

She sighed, as she dodged a Lincoln Town Car longer than her office, and watched as it's elderly driver simply chose to part the yacht right in front of the store.

Oh well.. it wouldn't kill her.. besides, the kid sounded so unsure…she wanted to make a good impression, and that, at least, Dar agreed with. It would be sensational enough that she picked an assistant after posting for less than twenty four hours - Kerry would be under some close scrutiny the first few weeks. Might as well make sure the kid felt confident in what she was wearing.

Dar opened the rear entrance to Sears, and slipped inside, padding through the hardware section and out through the entrance into the main mall. A cacophony of mall music, the sounds of a fashion show, birds, and a dozen languages surrounded her and she glanced around, getting her bearings before she headed for the escalator to the second floor.

Macy's was in the dead center of the mall, near the busy food court, but Dar had no problem finding her target. Kerry was leaning against the railing, peering down at the fashion show that was going on below, and Dar took the time as she approached the study the younger woman.

She'd chosen khaki shorts and a crisp white shirt, and had her blond hair pulled back in a loose braid, one part of which was hanging over her shoulder as she watched. She leaned forward on her elbows to see better, and the overhead light cascaded gently around her, highlighting the smooth lines of her face. They shifted as she turned, perhaps sensing eyes on her, and her gaze met Dar's.

Unconsciously, Dar was sure, a smile formed, that extended to her sea green eyes and wrinkled the skin around her nose and mouth.

No, she then realized. That smile's for me.. Well, better than the wary, suspicious look she'd gotten before, Dar supposed. "Hi."

Kerry moved back from the railing, and straightened her shirt with an automatic gesture. "Hi.. listen, thank you for offering to help me do this.. I can't believe you took the time out."

Dar shrugged. "Normally, I couldn't… but since we posted quarterly reports yesterday, there's nothing scheduled this weekend." She gestured. "Shall we?"

"Well.. thanks." Kerry seemed a bit nervous. "Um.. do you shop here a lot? I've been up here a few times.. I like some of the little stores.. did you know there was a Warner Brother's shop here? I like Tweety Bird."

Dar chuckled. "No.. actually I haven't been up here since they built the addition on… I'll have to go take a look." She paused. "I.. um… I've been to the Disney Store, though."

They entered Macy's and moved quickly past the fragrance counter, which tended to be overwhelming. Dar took the lead, and slipped between several aisles, arriving in the section that featured understated, classic business clothing.

"Mm." Kerry fingered a silk blouse. "That's nice."

Dar took a breath, and took charge. "Okay…let's see." She wandered the racks, and riffled through their offerings, then picked out a skirt and jacket set, in a rich blue green. "Something like this would be fine." She paused, and her brows creased. "Oh.. here, with this kind of shirt." She pulled a cream colored silk blouse over. "Get the idea?"

Kerry touched the label, then checked the size. She gave Dar a perplexed look. "Did you pick this by chance, or did you guess what size I am?"

The older woman allowed a grin to surface briefly. "Let's just say.. I have a good three dimensional spatial sense."

A snort. "Oh.. sure.. you can say that.. I wouldn't try it twice fast." She glanced at the outfit. "Well, let me try this on just to check the size…you can never tell with these designers." She accepted a tag from the fitting room guardian, and slipped inside a closet, hanging the outfit up and gazing at it. "Not bad, actually.." She mused, liking the color.

It took a moment to pull her clothes off, and slip into the skirt, zipping it up and adjusting the waistline a little. It hugged her hips, and maintained a fairly straight line, which she preferred to pleats. Then she put on the silk blouse, smling as the cool fabric warmed against her skin, and tucked it into the skirt, putting on the jacket over both of them. She settled the clothes, then surveyed the results in the mirror.

Hmm. Don't I look stuffy. She made a face at herself in the mirror. But then that building is pretentious, so.. with a sigh, she poked her head out the door, and spotted Dar lounging against the wall, watching the people go by. The executive looked anything but, in her faded jeans and salmon colored shirt, which was tucked in the braided leather belt clasped around her waist. Her dark hair was loose, and uncomplicated, flowing free around her shoulders and she had on a minimum of makeup, which suited her tanned skin. "Hey.. " Kerry called softly.

Dar's eyes shifted from the crowd to her, the pale blue startling as always. A dark brow lifted, and a look of approval crossed her face. "Yep.. that's the ticket." The executive nodded. "What do you think?"

Kerry walked forward, twitching at the fabric. "Well, I think I feel like a librarian, but.. "

Suddenly, startlingly, Dar smiled, showing even, white teeth and the faintest of twinkles in her pale eyes. "Dade County should be that lucky." She remarked, wryly. "Literacy would go up, that's for sure."

The blond woman smiled back, a little confused. Was she being complimented? It was hard to tell. "Okay.. well, I get the idea here.. a few more and… um.. if you have other things to do, don't bother hanging around.. I really appreciate you coming all the way up here, though, Dar."

Dar glanced around, then folded her arms. "Tell you the truth, I had to come up here anyway.. there are a few things in Lord and Taylor's I needed to pick up.. and I should get one or two new blazers myself…" She considered for a moment. "We should probably chat for a few minutes before tomorrow anyway. How about we finish up here, then grab a sandwich over in the new wing, so we can sit down and talk?"

Kerry blinked. "Um.. " Well, sure… she's my new boss, it makes perfect sense. "Sure… that sounds fine.. I've got some questions and things I should ask, and that kind of thing."

"Good." Dar nodded briskly. "Come on then.. let's get the rest of your stuff picked out."

Kerry looked at the menu, then glanced across the table at the tall, dark haired woman who was peering up at the ceiling, observing a large, stuffed cheetah perched over their heads. A rumble of thunder rolled around them, and she thought it was real, for a minute, then realized it was part of the ambiance of the restaurant.

The Rainforest Café was definitely different. Small trickles of water were everywhere, and a gentle mist rose from the planter in back of her. Off to one side, a trio of colorful birds were being coaxed through tricks by a red shirted attendant, and they were surrounded by cave like walls and thick jungle foliage.

Dar reached up and touched the cheetah's tail, and, as if by cue, the animal let out a mechanical roar, causing the executive to jerk her hand back in a startled motion. She scowled, then looked across at Kerry, who was biting her lip to keep from smiling. "You think it's funny, huh?"

Kerry cleared her throat. "Um.. no.. no… I make it a point never to laugh at my boss." She kept her eyes on the menu, which was poking her tastebuds with interesting items, but she sighed, and pinned her eyes on the salads.

Dar had no such compunctions. She glanced up as a perky young waitress came over, and folded her hands on the table. "Do you like ice tea?" She inquired.

Kerry nodded positively. "Sure."

"Bring a pitcher of ice tea, and an appetizer combo to start." The executive instructed the waitress. "Then come back in a few minutes." She waited for the girl to leave. "I figured that was pretty safe.. I've never eaten here, but I've heard good things about the food."

"Um… " Kerry gave in, and decided to just make it up with an extra hour of riding tomorrow. "Yeah.. it all looks good…" She settled happily on a spicy pasta dish and closed the menu, glancing across at Dar with a fading sense of trepidation. It was hard to believe she'd ever been intimidated by the taller woman, not sitting here in a wild, themed restaurant with the chance to be able to observe Dar at close range.

Her face was very interesting, Kerry thought. It was almost always moving, little muscles shifting under her skin like she was watching things. Her hands moved a lot too, playing with the menu, with the silverware, and with the tiny drink table tents that announced specials. Kerry wondered if Dar wasn't a little nervous, or uncomfortable, because she certainly was, but it was hard to tell. Maybe the woman just naturally fidgeted, after all.

Her hands had a few little scars on them, in addition to the swelling and bruising across her right knuckles, and she wasn't wearing any rings. They were fairly good sized, with long fingers and short, unpolished nails. As someone who used a keyboard all day, Kerry could appreciate that, and in fact, unless she was going out, she did the same.

Dar's wrists were thicker in proportion to her own, though, and as the executive moved, she could see the shift of muscles just under her skin even in the low light. It was an impression of strength that intrigued the younger woman, as it was so at odds with the corporate mentality she'd been expecting. Vice presidents were pasty white men, who sat in plush offices all day, and smoked cigars. They weren't… well, they weren't Dar Roberts.

"Excuse me?" Kerry looked up, realizing Dar had spoken to her. "I'm sorry.. I missed that?"

Dar cocked her head, and regarded her. "What I said was, you can expect a few weeks where you'll need to settle in, and get used to things."

"All right… I kind of thought that was the case.. and besides, I need a week to put someone in my position.. I know I was thinking of Ray, but this all happened so fast, I didn't have a chance to talk to him about anything."

Dar nodded. "Good…spend a day or two there clearing thing up, while I get paperwork and a place for you to sit straightened out at the office. Maria is going to kill me for dumping a new hire on her plate first thing on a Monday morning."

Kerry wasn't sure what response was required for this information, so she just pursed her lips into a hesitant smile.

"Maria is my secretary." Dar explained, seeing the expression.

"Oh." The green eyes examined the table, which was covered in a tropical shower curtain material. "She's going to be upset, huh?"

"Just for a minute." The dark haired woman replied. "Listen.. are you sure you want to do this?"

The question had come out of the blue, and caused Kerry to jerk her head up, and meet Dar's eyes. "I.." She fell silent. "I’m sure."

Dar exhaled. "This isn't an easy job - you have to put up with a lot of stress, and a lot of bullshit.. I'm not an easy person to be around, or get along with… I want you to know that up front." Her voice was serious. "You're a nice kid, and I don't want you to come back at me two weeks from now saying it's too much for you."

Kerry straightened, and looked her in the eye, feeling herself wanting to rise to the challenge apparent in Dar's words. "How nice can I be if I called you a son of a bitch?" She inquired, seeing that sudden, impish glint appear across from her, and as quickly disappear. "And I'm not a kid, thanks.. I'm twenty seven."

Dar studied her openly. "You hated what happened to your company. Why do you want become a part of that?" Well, she said she liked directness and honesty… Kerry Stuart seemed to provide both in large measures.

The blond woman studied her back. "I like you."

Both of Dar's dark brows rose. "Excuse me?"

Kerry shrugged. "I like you. I think you're smart, and I think I can learn a lot from you." She paused. "Where I was, that was as high as I was going… I stopped learning things.. it was more like my job was maintaining the status quo. There were new accounts, sure, but I didn't get to direct that, only provide the support and solutions.. this is something a lot different."

Dar propped her chin up on a fist and regarded her. "I see." Privately, she was a little surprised, and a lot intrigued.

"My turn." Kerry took a sip of the ice tea their server put down, and blinked at the tray of appetizers. "Mm.." She picked up a piece of coconut chicken and nibbled it before she continued. "Why me?"

"Hmm?" Dar had taken a stuffed eggroll and was chewing it.

A shrug. "A hundred and ten thousand people to choose from, why me?"

The dark haired woman stopped eating, and flashed her a smile. "I like you." A hint of humor appeared. "Not one of the other hundred and ten thousand would have had the guts to call me a son of a bitch, or tell me to go to hell."

"Oh." Kerry blushed.

"I think you've got potential, and you aren't dragging around a lot of baggage I have to get rid of before you'll be useful." Dar continued, in a reflective tone. "Besides, you're probably good with people, which is something I'm lousy at." She bit into the eggroll and munched it.

"Mm… not always." Kerry replied quietly.

Dar glanced up. "You're not good with people?" Her voice was surprised.

"You're not always bad with them." The blond woman replied, smiling a little at the momentary break in her new boss's composure. "But I know what you mean… I do get along with people most of the time.. I like working out problems, finding different solutions without going head to head.. that kind of thing."

Dar chuckled. "I'd rather break the heads and have done with it."

Kerry gently touched the bruised hand laying on the table. "So I see." She removed her fingers, when she saw the taller woman's flinch at the touch. "Sorry.. is it sore?"

"A little." Dar flexed her hand a bit. "Must have banged it on the car."

Kerry just looked at her, a hint of a smile playing around her lips. "I had to pay extra for the screaming Mustang model, too… it makes a great car alarm." She drawled. "I especially like the option which makes it holler "Jesus Christ" in Spanish."

Dar held her blank look for a moment more, then surrendered, relaxing into a smile that took five years off her age. "You have quite the sense of humor there."

Kerry laughed. "To be honest, I didn't even realize what was going on until I thought about it last night. I was too shook up before that." She took a chicken wing and dipped it into a small dish of blue cheese dressing. "It was kind of like living the movie of the week, you know? Here I am, trapped in the bowels of Miami, getting attacked by street punks, when along comes a hero, beating them all up and chasing them away like dogs with their tails caught betw…"

She'd looked up and found pale blue eyes staring at her from a very serious face. "What?"

Dar leaned forward. "Don't call me that. I've known far too many people who really were." Her voice went a touch deeper. "They just didn't want any witnesses, so they took off."

Kerry gazed at her. "Well.. you might know many of them, but I only know one so far." Her chin lifted in stubborn insistence. "But I won't mention it if it bothers you." The dim lighting made it hard to tell, but the blond woman thought it was possible her new boss was blushing, just a little.

The waitress arrived, much to both of their relief. "Umm.. the spicy pasta." Kerry didn't try to pronounce the actual name of it.

Dar cleared her throat. "I'll have the salmon steak."

The waitress scribbled. "Vegetables or garlic mashed potatoes?"

"Potatoes, please." The dark haired woman replied. "And some more tea."

They were both silent after she left, and Kerry took the opportunity to sample some of the rest of the appetizers. She waited until her companion did the same, then finally looked up. "So.. tell me about those contracts…I'd at least like to give the TCP/IP group a heads up…I know you said it was the IRS, but… "

Dar seemed relieved at the change in subject. "Oh.. right… well, it's their master website. They set up a consumer site to provide tax help and all the forms support. It gets about forty thousand hits a day - mostly bandwidth issues, and doc server glitches."

"Mm.." Kerry absorbed this.

"The contract specifies hardware and software - you'll have resources in the local area to dispatch for the hardware.. I think we contract out to NCR in that area."

"Sounds good." The blond woman looked intrigued. "What about the other one?"

"Unmm…… " Dar's brow creased. "Oh yeah…the ATM contract for transmission services for the Navy." She paused. "And the network support for that, and for their ship to shore microwave network transmissions."

Kerry blinked. "Wow… the WAN guys are going to freak out." She laughed a little. "They were telling me only last month they were getting bored." She relaxed a little, and so did Dar. "That'll mean some extra training."

Dar nodded. "I'll give you the number of the training division in Plano.. give them a call, and set up what you need. Depending on how many people you have, either they'll go out there, or Plano will send a trainer down here."

They continued discussing details until dinner arrived, then talk slowed down as they paid attention to their food.

Kerry enjoyed her pasta, and watched curiously as her companion methodically decimated the large salmon steak into neat squares, pairing each square with a forkful of mashed potatoes as she ate it. "That smells great."

"It is." Dar replied, after swallowing. "It's honey and brown sugar glazed." She hesitated, then casually dropped a square on Kerry's plate. "Here."

Kerry obligingly tried it. "Wow.. that is good." She nudged a bit of the chicken from her pasta over on to her companion's dish. "Fair is fair."

"Wow." Dar chuckled. " You like stuff spicy, huh?" She chewed the offering.

"Mmhmm.." The blond woman agreed. "It's what I like best about living here… everything tastes different, it's not all the same." She took a sip of tea. "Do you like Thai food?"

"Anything with peanuts." The executive replied, with a grin. "There's a good Thai restaurant right off US 1 near Dadeland.. they make really good chicken curry."

Kerry's eyes lit up. "Really? And I never found it? W…" The 'we' almost escaped, but she clamped her jaw shut on it. We should go there? What the heck was she thinking? This was her new boss, who certainly had better things to do than roam around Miami finding new Thai restaurants for her. "Thanks for telling me about it."

"Sure." Dar smiled at her. "How'd it go with your window?"

"Oh.. fine.. fine.. it's done already." Kerry assured her.. then she dug in a pocket. "Oh yeah… Jerry found this when he was cleaning the glass up.. is it yours?" She held up a woodgrain cased pen.

Dar blinked. "Didn't even realize I lost that." She reached over and claimed it. "Thanks." She looked up as the waitress returned. "We're done, yes…I'd like a large cappucino..and um.. " Her eyes went to Kerry's face, watching the blond woman's brows lift as a dessert tray went by. "Hey.. share a cheesecake with me?"

Kerry's eyes widened, then she sighed, and patted her stomach. "I shouldn’t"

Dar just waited, sure of her quarry. She was beginning to gather an understanding about her new associate. It was a habit of hers, to try and figure out all the angles, and predict what people would do, and so far, Kerry Stuart was proving quite a challenge. But not on this subject.

"Oh.. well, okay." She capitulated, giving Dar a little wry shrug. "Guess I'll just put in extra time on the roller blades." And how had the mildly unnerving Dar Roberts known she liked cheesecake? She decided to try another slightly more personal question, though she noticed the other woman stiffened up when she'd done so before. "Have you ever tried that?"

"Cheesecake or rollerblades?" Dar chuckled softly. "Both.. I like one, and I'm not too fond of the other.. I made close acquaintance with a tree last time I used them." She glanced towards the fake waterfall, which was expelling another cloud of mist. "I stick to running." She noticed Kerry's eyes on the bare, subtly muscular arms emerging from her shirt. "And a little working out." The sea green orbs lifted to hers, and Dar felt uncharacteristically off balance. Something about the intensity, maybe? "So, you're all ready for tomorrow? Did personnel forward you an electronic packet of forms for all the people you'll be converting?"

Kerry watched as the server put down an enormous piece of cheesecake, covered with chocolate, which was flanked by two bananas, equally doused. She sucked in a breath. "Oo." Then she realized Dar had asked her a question. "Uh.. yes.. I got a ton of mail from them.. including a three page instruction list from someone named Mariana, who said something really funny like I was the new duckling?" She waited for Dar to pick up one of the two forks the server offered, then picked up her own and tried a bite. "Wow… I could get to like that way too much."

"Duckling, huh?" Dar murmured, as she worked a chunk off and nibbled it. "Mariana is our director of personnel.. she'll help you get everything straightened out." She took another bite, enjoying the smooth, rich taste. "She has a unique sense of humor."

Is that a company requirement? Kerry wondered, but didn't reply.

They finished up, and sauntered through the shop in the front of the restaurant, filled with rainforest inspired merchandise ranging from T-shirts to tiny rubber geckos, to beanie babies in the shape of toucans and monkeys. Kerry fingered a tiny beanie iguana, in an interesting shade of greenish blue, then put it down with a sigh. "I have enough stuff on my desk."

Dar, who had been examining the large cockatoo overhead, turned, but didn't say anything. They walked out, and through the mostly closed mall, the stores shut up tight and only a thin strain of music playing. "Where are you parked?"

"Around by the food court." Kerry answered, as she pushed the door open and held it. The thick, moist air hit her, carrying a heavy scent of rain. "Well, thank you, Dar… I really appreciate you coming up here."

The darkness outside hid most of the taller woman's expression. "I'll give you a ride around to the front.. my car's back here." She stated. "And don't worry about it - I was glad to get a chance to pick up this stuff." She hefted her bag.

Kerry followed her out into the dark lot, stretching her legs a little to keep up. The breeze off the nearby ocean was warm, and sultry and she sighed. "It's hard to get used to the heat sometimes."

A soft chuckle answered her. "That's why we all stay inside." Dar replied. "C'mon…it's over here.. under that ledge.

Moving shadows surrounded them, cleaners, and workmen, and other, darker figures. The parking lot was large, and mostly empty, and she could see several small groups of what looked like teenagers, lit cigarettes and low laughter coming from them.

Eyes watched as they crossed the gray surface, and unconsciously, Kerry moved a little closer to her tall companion. "Kinda creepy out here."

Dar glanced down. "Just act like you own the place. I guarantee, none of these kids'll come near you." She advised the smaller woman.

Kerry watched as the group they were approaching eyed Dar, then nudged over a little out of her way. "I'll try to keep that in mind." She murmured, feeling quite, quite safe.

"Where have you been?" Colleen's voice came from the doorway, as Kerry finished carrying in her packages. "Ooo.. I see bags from Macy's… " She ducked inside, and helped the blond woman put the bundles down. "How'd it go?"

Kerry sat down on her desk chair, and folded her arms across her chest. "Well…it was interesting.. I got lots of stuff, as you can see, and.. um… it was interesting."

Colleen folded her own arms. "Interesting. Your new boss offers to come over and help you shop for clothes.. and you call this interesting? I call it…mysteriously intriguing." The redhead chuckled. "So.. what's she like, when she's not firing people or restructuring companies?"

"Um." Kerry exhaled. "It's kind of hard to explain… I mean, she's really.. " She described a box with her hands. "She's very closed.. kind of remote, but then once in a while she just kinda opens up just a little bit, enough for you to tell there's a human being in there, and not a microprocessor."

"Mmhm… " Colleen digested this. "So you two spent all this time shopping?"

A quirk of Kerry's lips. "No…not exactly.. we had dinner at the Rainforest." She avoided Colleen's widening eyes. "She wanted to go over next week, and what to expect, and things like that."

"Did you have fun?"

Kerry thought about that. "It was…Col, it was really, really weird, because half of the time it was very strained, because we don't know each other, and she's my boss, and it's just weird, but the other half of the time, it was…." She struggled to explain. "It was almost like we did know each other… it.."

"Like old friends who've just met?" The redhead quietly supplied. "Remember that Muppet Movie song?"

A pause. "Yeah.. kinda." Kerry admitted. "I've never had that happen to me before… but I think we're going to be okay."

"You like her." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah, I do." Kerry stated positively.

"Incredible." Colleen shook her head.  "I saw Reynaldo over at Publix… we were getting deli together and I was telling him about you going to work for her.. he was in total shock." She shook her head. "He's the IS manager at the bank.. he got chewed, and chewed, and chewed until he had only one quarter of his butt left over that tape disaster.. he says she's just the nastiest person he'd ever met."

Kerry lifted her shoulders. "I think she can be… I can see she's got a pretty dark streak in there.. remember I told you about that goon, and how he practically dissolved when she yelled at him? And I remember how she was when we first met in my office… there wasn't much to like.. she was pretty mean."

Colleen rubbed her head. "But you like her?"

It did sound strange, Kerry realized. "I don't know.. yeah… I mean, she could have fired my butt several times, right? I was pretty nasty.. I told her to go to hell and all of that, and she could have just axed me right then and there, locked me out, had security take my butt out of the building, but she didn't.. in fact, tonight, I kind of got the feeling that she respected me for it."

"Oh.. that's twisted, me bucko." Her friend warned. "You watch out for her, hear? She can turn on you quick as a whistle." She sighed. "I don't know, Ker…these are pretty uncharted waters you're sailing into here.. I hope you know what you're doing."

I hope I do, too. Kerry sighed inwardly. "I can't really explain it.. maybe if I'd taken time to really think about what was happening, I would have chosen to stay where I was.. but maybe not.. I just thought this would be such a unique opportunity…you know?"

"Unique." Colleen slung an arm across her shoulders. "Me dearie, that's an understatement.. but if you have a problem, I talked with Jacob at my office, and he says he'd take you on in an instant, okay?"

Kerry smiled, and leaned against her affectionately. "Thanks, Col… I really appreciate that." She exhaled. "Hey.. wanna see what I got?"

"You betcha."

They opened the various packages, and Kerry hung the items off the curtain rod in the living room.

"Ooo.. I like this one." The redhead pointed at the blue/green outfit. "Nice pin." She touched the front of the jacket.

Kerry stepped closer and laid a finger on it. "Good grief… my mind must have been all over the place." She laughed in gentle delight. "I didn't even notice that was on there.. yeah, it is nice." The pin was a pair of silver dolphins frolicking on a gold background, with the waves in the forefront tinged in pink and blue. "Perfect for the color.. it does kinda look like the ocean, doesn’t it?"

"Mmmhmm.." Colleen agreed readily. "Bet it looks nice on you… it just about matches your eyes." She looked at the row of clothing. "I like all of them, but I like this one the best… though that purple one is nice too."

"Yeah.." The blond woman smiled. "I like the braid on that… listen, if I put some of this stuff on, would you take a picture? My parents want to see what I look like dressed up."

"Surely." Her friend laughed. "Though, being fair, you look nice in just about everything, you rat.. " She poked Kerry in the ribs. "Even those torn off old denim rags you wear sometimes."

"Hey.. they're my favorite pair of jeans." Kerry protested, as she pulled the blue/green outfit down. "Be right back."

The sky had finally cleared, exposing a thick wash of stars, which twinkled down over the quiet coral deck. The pool's warm waters rippled, sliding around the lone, still figure floating gently atop them, its head resting on crossed arms and it's legs propped on a thick, Styrofoam raft.

Dar let the peace surround her, concentrating on the gentle sounds of the surf not far away, and the rustle of a light breeze which moved the trees that surrounded the pool. She was alone, which was not surprising considering the hour, and she was spending a little time just reflecting quietly on her day.

At least it had been more productive than the previous day. After she'd sent her email out, she'd somehow managed to fall asleep again on the couch, with her laptop up and running, the soft leather gathering in her tired body and refusing to give it up until almost dinner time, when she'd groggily woken to see Power Rangers dancing on the screen and 3D pipes patiently creating a plumbing layout on her laptop display.

That was when she picked up Kerry's mail, and in a sleepy daze, answered it and told the younger woman she'd join her at the mall. It wasn't until ten minutes or so after she hit the send key that she blinked, and realized what she'd done, and by then, it was too late.

But she hadn't regretted it, no.. not at all. The outing had been… well, sort of fun, in a way. She didn't get many opportunities to just relax and hang around with other people, and Kerry was shaping up to be an interesting person to spend time with. Which was good, because as her assistant, that's exactly what she'd be doing with her.

The dinner had been somewhat of a test - Dar knew if she could stand spending an hour eating dinner with someone without wanting to kill them, it was a good sign. Kerry had passed. In fact.. Dar gazed up at the stars in mild surprise. Kerry had more than passed. She'd actually enjoyed herself, to the point where she wished the evening had gone on a little longer, and when was the last time that had happened?

It was nice to just talk to someone who was bright, had a sense of humor, and wasn't intimidated by her. Dar grinned, remembering the crack about the screaming Mustang. Then she flexed her hand, remembering the gentle touch there. So… she'd figured out that old Dar hadn't just shooed the bad guys away, huh? Clever kid.

She sighed, and shifted in the water a little, tilting her head back and blinking as the moon edged out from behind a cloud, and lit her in a simple, silver glow. It made the coral around her seem almost white, and if she raised her head, she could see a broad, flickering path that led from where she lay straight to the horizon.

She rolled over, and ducked her head under the warm water, kept heated year round despite the usually hot temperatures in the area. A few laps more just to loosen her shoulders up, and she eased out of the pool, grabbing her towel and drying herself off as she padded quietly back down the stairs and across the waterfront paths to her condo.

The cold air in the hallway chilled her skin, and she quickly ducked in the laundry room, shedding her bathing suit and trading it for a cotton baseball shirt and soft flannel boxers. She headed into the kitchen and claimed a mug, which she filled with milk and chocolate syrup, then popped in the microwave.

Two minutes later she pulled it out, observing the new mail icon on the kitchen terminal. "Mail, read."

"Dar Roberts, six messages, none urgent."

She scanned the headers. "Read All." The warm cocoa slid down her throat as she waited.

Roesenthal, Lester - Sent 8:43PM

Dar -

Next time you want to just transition one of your little finds direct to corporate, just tell me, will you? I really didn't need thirty whining regional directors complaining to me that you're not following procedure.

Her stats don't show much, but if she's good enough for you to pick as your right hand, I guess I'll have to live with it. I hope she's cute, at least.


"Reply." Dar muttered, and waited for a new message to appear.

Les -

Sorry, yes you will, and I really hadn't noticed one way or the other.


"Send." Dar sipped her chocolate, with a smirk. "Next."

Elesha, Mariana - Sent 9:01PM

DR -

You stirred up a hornet's nest, my friend. Watch out - I think at least some of them are going upstairs.

I sent, I processed, I emailed. Your new body should have all the paperwork she needs to get things rolling at Synergenics - and by the way, that was a nice piece of power shuffleboard with Peter to get the numbers in. He filed a formal complaint against you, btw. Les' response (he bcc'd me) was "Do you want me to review this before or after I review the bonus schedule for this quarter, which depends on your making your numbers?"

You know, Dar - you're really lucky you're as good as you are - no one else would get away with the crap that you do. Be careful, my friend. Be very, very careful.

Since I was at the office on Saturday, I processed everything for Ms. Stuart - she's on your payroll starting Monday, so make sure she knows how to turn in things, and all that. I have her file from Synergenics - I have to tell you, Dar, until I saw it, I was having some very evil thoughts about you, but in reviewing it, I realized you picked a very qualified candidate. I don't even have to fake things on her profile. I'm attaching the details so you have record of them - did you know she was the Michigan State debating champion one year?

Anyway - see you at the office on Monday. I'll try to soothe some ruffled feathers, but keep low for awhile, will you? Just for me?


Dar bit off a delighted grin. "Debating champion, huh? Damn.. I'm in trouble.. I shoulda guessed that." She sat on the tall stool. "Reply."

Mari -

Thanks for the warning - Les already mailed me about the dissenters - he's going to handle it.

I'm shocked you would think I would pick any candidate based on frivolous reasons - of course, I knew how qualified Ms. Stuart is for this position - why do you think I asked for it? The company's best interests come first, this wasn't some knee jerk reaction based on personality. In point of fact, the lady in question told me to go to hell, so it certainly wasn't done for friendly reasons. I'm sure she'll be an asset to the company, and maybe she'll take some of my people issues, so you get less complaints.


She chuckled softly. "Send." Then she clicked on the attached file, and read the few short paragraphs with interest. "Hmm.. gymnastics.. double major in computers and.. no.. that can't be right.. in English? What a mix…" Kerry's work history showed a steady, even progression from entry level to management, with increasing responsibility and experience moving from job to job, with no job lasting less than two years. Stability, good work ethics…no gaps… no wonder Mariana had been impressed.

She checked the personal side. No workman's comp claims, no judgements, good credit.. spotless record, not even a speeding ticket… damn. Dar's brows rose. "It's almost too good to be true." The thought caused a frown to edge her features. "New message."

Mark -

I need a class 1 security inquiry on a new hire - Kerry Stuart, the Associated employee we talked about last week. She's coming on staff in my department, and I want to know everything, don't cut corners, don’t' gloss, the works.


"Send." Dar drummed her fingers on the counter, feeling a trifle guilty about checking so thoroughly, but if Kerry was going to be privy to all her little tricks, it was better to be sure about who and what she really was. It wouldn't be the first time a rival had tried to slip someone into the inside.

It was a logical precaution, her mind insisted. But something inside her still felt uneasy, as though it bothered her to think she couldn’t trust Kerry.

She thought about that for a bit. Her gut instinct was solidly in the kid's favor. It hadn't been wrong yet.

But it never hurt to be sure. Dar sighed, and turned back to the screen. She went through the next three messages, which were acknowledgments of items she'd taken care of the previous week, then she clicked on the seventh with a odd feeling of anticipation.

Stuart, Kerry - Sent 12:32 AM


Why does everyone think I'm crazy because I want to work for you? I got four mails warning me that I didn't know what I was getting into, from people I barely, or don't even know. I decided they're just jealous - I sent a list - you can tell me if they're people who had applied for the job. If they are, then I feel a lot better.

I wrote them all back thanking them for their concern, and hoping I'd get a chance to work with them sometime. I hope that was okay.

Anyway - hope you have a good week - and thanks again for helping me shop.


"Reply." Dar leaned against the counter, and propped her head up on her hand.


Everyone thinks you're crazy because everyone knows I'm a heartless and cruel bitch who drives people to drink and an early grave, and who has no sympathy for anyone or anything. I tried to warn you about that. It's not too late to back out if you want to.

Your list is, as you suspected, disappointed candidates. The reply was appropriate.

I don't get much chance just to go out and be semi social, so today was very pleasant for me. It also was an indication that we might just be able to work together. My previous attempts at an assistant have lasted one, three, four, and two days respectively. One I threw out, one decided to go back to the job they came from, and the other two ran screaming into the night never to be heard from again.

Please bear all this in mind.


"Send." Dar stifled a yawn and finished off her cocoa, then rinsed the mug out and put it upside down on the drain board. She turned off the lights as she went through the condo, leaving the space in total darkness as she reached her bedroom, and crawled into the welcoming warmth and shifting motion of the waterbed. One arm curled around her pillow, and the other rested lightly on the surface as she let her eyes close and slipped into sleep.

Kerry glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror for the sixth time, before she took a deep breath, and turned off the car.

It had been a week. A very hectic week, in which she'd tied up loose ends she didn't even realize were there, and eased Ray in to her position. That first day had been a shock, when she'd had good news, and bad news, and important news all combined to tell everyone. Letting go fifty people had been hard, but when she'd told them about the severance package..

So that had turned out okay. The support groups were still reeling over the new contracts, and both support managers had spent the week brushing up on every piece of TCP/IP literature they could get their hands on. They were determined to make a good impression, and not let her down.

All of them were. It was so odd.. the week before, they'd been cursing the corporation's name, and now.. now, they were finding ways to change, and adjust… most of them simply glad to still be employed.

The reaction to her new position had been…

Wow. It had ranged from. "You are absolutely crazy" to "Jesus, you impressed her THAT MUCH?" and a lot ranged in between, a lot of people sorry to see her go, but encouraged because 'she' was going to be 'up there' and maybe could influence 'her' if things got to be trouble.

Robert had called her in, last Friday, and sat her down. His face had been serious, and he'd asked her straight out if she knew what she was doing with this 'shark in a dress suit."

And Kerry had just kept smiling, and telling everyone she viewed this as a great learning experience, no matter what happened.

So now it was a week later, and it was Monday morning, and it was time for her to start this great new learning experience. She'd been trading email with Dar most of the week, keeping her updated on the transition progress. The executive's writing style had relaxed a little as the week went on, not much, but just a little, and Kerry found herself looking forward to seeing Dar again.

"Okay, I'm ready." She told her reflection, then shouldered her briefcase, and slipped out of the Mustang, careful to pull her skirt straight, odd after not having to wear one for quite some time. She locked the door and squared her shoulders, then headed for the building's main entrance.

She gave her name at the security desk, and waited while the agent there looked on a list, then smiled at her. "Ms. Stuart, can you please come with me? We need to badge you."

"Okay." Kerry agreed amiably, as she followed the short, husky man around the corner and into a small suite of rooms. There were banks of monitors along one wall, with a slim, blond haired girl watching them. The girl turned as they entered, and gave Kerry a polite smile, which she returned.

She got her picture and fingerprints taken, then stood while the agent assembled a security badge much like she'd seen Dar carry the night they'd come back here. The man attached an electronic scan card to the badge, then handed it over to her. "Thank you." She accepted it, and examined the surface. "Wow.. you even take nice pictures." She gave him a grin.

He grinned right back. "Depends entirely on the subject, ma'am."

Kerry blushed. "Thanks… may I go up now?"

"It's the fourteenth floor, Ms. Stuart - up that first bank of elevators, then when you get off, turn left, and it's the second door on your right."

Kerry nodded, remembering. "Yes.. thank you." She slipped out of the security offices, and headed towards the elevator, glancing up through the atrium and smiling. It was even more impressive in the daylight, with the sun pouring down through it, and catching on the various crystal sculptures which lined the steep walls. It was also busier now, of course, and she dodged several hurrying people, as she got into the elevator and punched the button for the fourteenth floor.

That got a side glance from two of the other occupants, and Kerry noticed them looking over, trying to inconspicuously read her name badge. She stuck out her hand instead. "Hi. I'm Kerry Stuart. Nice to meet you."

The first woman shook her hand, then the second. "Enid Perspects." The taller of the two said, hesitantly. "I work in Purchasing"

"Sally Cruz." The second, a shorter, darker woman added. "In Marketing… are you Dar Robert's new assistant?"

"That's me." Kerry replied with a grin.

They looked at her as though she had two heads. "Well.. good luck." Enid mumbled, as the door opened, and she and her dark haired friend escaped. "You're gonna need it." That was under her breath, but Kerry heard it anyway.

The door slid shut, leaving her with a stocky, dark haired man of middling height, about her own age. He studied her for a moment, then held out his hand. "So.. you're the infamous Kerry Stuart."

Kerry sighed and shook his hand. "Infamous? I hope not.. I just got here." She gave him a wary look. "And you are???"

He laughed. "Relax.. I'm Mark Polenti.. head of MIS security. " He paused. "I'm a friend of Dar's."

Kerry gave him a friendlier look. "Really? To hear people talk, she doesn’t have any of those."

"Nah.. she does.. not many, that's true, but the right ones, in the right places, if you know what I mean." The stocky man smiled. "As long as you know your shit, you're all right with Dar. If you don’t', your toast. It's really easy." His eyes met hers. "You must know yours."

"Guess we'll find out." Kerry relaxed a little, then turned as the doors opened onto the floor she'd requested. She and Mark exited, then both headed down the same corridor. Kerry could hear raised voices as she reached the double doors which lead into Dar's office, and she glanced sideways at Mark. "Sounds like a fight."

"What else is new?" He sighed, and held the door for her. "C'mon, might as well get used to it."

The inside of Dar's outer office was very different in the daytime. Several people were waiting, facing a desk which had a short, round, gray haired woman behind it, who was pressing the phone against her ear with one hand, and holding her other ear with the other. Two of the people waiting were arguing, one waving a set of printouts.

"There is no way we can complete that account, Larry.. it's not going to work so go find another way to do it!" The shorter of the two men shouted.

"We've got no choice, Scott.. the account team promised a full support center, and now they're holding us to it!" The other man replied, throwing up his hands. "I hope to hell Dar can figure out how to pull us out of this mess… I'm going to beat the crap out of Sue Kingston on the account team for pulling this crap again!"

Two other women were standing, carrying reams of paper, and trying to get the secretary's attention. She was on the phone with two lines blinking, and talking on a third. Barely heard, a buzzer sounded. The secretary put her caller on hold, and punched it. "Yes, Dar."

"I've got half the goddamn domestic network down, three mainframes whose loads were screwed by mids last night, and CLIPC won't answer their phones. Get me someone in Charlotte who doesn't have their heads up their asses, right now!"

"Aie, I'm trying.. believe me." The secretary replied.

"I can't have trying, Maria… I need those people!" Dar's voice was rough with frustration, and Kerry moved towards it almost instinctively. She found herself at the secretary's desk, and gave her a tight smile as the woman looked up. "Hi." she said, softly. "Looks like a busy morning, huh?"

"Dar?" The older woman interrupted her bosses further ranting.

"What?" The executive growled.

"Ms. Stuart is here." Maria gazed at the slim blond appraisingly.

Silence for a moment. "Oh, good. Send her in." Dar's voice had dropped an octave, and sounded almost cheerful. "Hello, Kerry.. welcome to Hell."

Continued in Part 4