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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 2

By Melissa Good

"Right this way, Ms. Roberts." The concierge gave her a sketchy half bow, and indicated that she follow him. They entered the elevator, and he pressed the button for the top floor, where the hotel maintained business suites for traveling executives. "Have you come far?" He inquired, politely.

Dar tore her attention from the steadily creeping floor numbers. "Miami." She shifted her shoulders inside her brown leather jacket. "It's a little cooler here."

The man chuckled, and held the door open as they reached the correct floor. "That it is."

Dar suffered his inane comments for a few more minutes, as he put her small bag down, then she gave him a tip and kicked him out. As the door closed behind him, she glanced around, and exhaled. Not bad, really. The suite contained a bedroom with a large king sized bed, and a sitting room with a decent sized TV, a cluster of chairs for guests, and a fully equipped desk with pens, pencils, a dataline hookup, and an electrical outlet conveniently at waist level.

She wandered over to the desk and set her laptop case down, then flipped curiously through the room service menu. The Hyatt usually featured fairly decent food, and this one had a Mexican theme restaurant downstairs, along with the usual coffee shop and bar. "So far, so good." Dar commented to the empty room, as she paged through the rest of the hotel directory. Ah. She tapped the plastic with one finger. Health club, pool, movie, dinner.

That decided, she pulled open her bag and took out a pair of shorts, sneakers, and a cut off sweatshirt, then flipped on the TV, checking out the movie selections. She chuckled. "Oh ho.. The Rock... this is definitely looking up."

A few minutes later, she'd changed, and was back by the desk, lifting the phone and dialing room service. She waited for an answer, then scanned the menu. "combination appetizer, steak fajitas, flan, and a coffee milkshake, please."

"Yes ma'am." The voice answered, after a period of scribbling noises.

"Can I have that at 9:30, please?" Dar requested, glancing at her watch. An hour and a half should be enough to get through a decent workout, and a quick swim. It would also allow her to shrug off her traveling fatigue, and probably put her in a better frame of mind than when she'd left Miami.

Anything would be an improvement over that.. the rest of the morning and all of the afternoon until her flight left had been taken up with staff meetings, both with her own department and with her peers. It had not been a pleasant experience, and by the time she'd fought her way through Miami International Airport and onto her flight, she'd been about at the edge of her temper.

Fortunately, the flight had been quiet, a commuter with no children, and quick service. Dar had relaxed in her first class seat, and accepted a single glass of white wine, sipping it slowly as she watched the slide below the horizon. The first stars were just coming out as she landed at Washington National, and she'd felt herself unwind a little, knowing she had at least a whole evening before she had to rain on Peter's parade.

She found the gym with little trouble, pushing the door open and getting the expected silence from within. Hotels provided the workout space as an amenity, but she knew from long experience that most business travelers preferred to relax in other ways, most having to do with consuming alchohol, and watching sports in the bar.

Dar preferred the solitude of the machines, and she attacked the small, but fairly well equipped circuit with mild enthusiasm, setting the weights and performing the reps according to a long established routine. It was a good workout, and she even surprised herself with a twenty pound advance on her arm curls which left her shoulders burning. After an hour, she returned the last machine to it's resting position and stood, wiping her face off with the small towel she'd tucked into he waistband.

Satisfied, she wandered over to the scale and stepped on it, pushing the weights over with a curious finger. "Mm." She mused, considering a surprising five pound drop. "Maybe I'll have two coffee milkshakes." A rakish grin faced her in the mirror and she stepped off the scale, remembering the office Christmas party last year when a drunken contest had started to guess her weight.

No one came close to the actual 160 pounds.. most guessed twenty or so less, thought she wasn't sure if it was the fact that most of it was muscle, and therefore was denser than they thought, or if they were just trying not to piss her off by guessing too high.

"B, with an eggroll." She informed her reflection, then she grabbed her towel and headed for the pool. Thirty minutes later, she was padding back to her room, the towel draped over her shoulders and her workout clothes tucked under one arm. She'd figured the hotel was mostly empty, and her one piece bathing suit was not exactly an attention getter, a reasonable conclusion until she got to the elevator.

Four guys who looked like lumberjacks. Dar sighed inwardly, as she bore the appreciative stares. They were medium height, midwestern types, wearing buffalo plaid shirts, and dockers, cleanshaven, but obviously a little drunk. They stared.

Dar stared back, leaning against the wall with an air of total nonchalance.

"Hey baby.. wanna come party in our room?" The redhead finally asked, with a smirk.

"No." The tall executive replied, as she slipped past them into the elevator.

She knew it was a mistake moments later when they followed her, standing between her and the door, which slid closed with a thump. Her heart rate increased and she watched them carefully, shifting her balance so it was over the balls of her feet, and putting on her most no nonsense look.

The tallest of them, a bearded man about six feet tall moved in. "Y'know.. ya shouldn't tease people like that.. " He leered at her. "Pretty thing like you.. and then you go and tell us off.. that's not nice.. "

Dar let the anger build, and waited. "I was just using the amenities of the hotel.. that's not against the law." She warned him, softly.

She felt the jerk as the elevator stopped, and realized the man furthest from her had stopped it between floors. She dropped her clothing quietly onto the floor and let her hands curl into fists. "Don't be stupid, boys."

A hand reached for her neck, and the first man closed in, his alcoholic breath blasting her as he pushed her back against the wall.

She grabbed his hand, and twisted, then nailed him in the nose with an elbow that caused blood to spurt all over both of them. A savage side kick slammed the second man against the opposite wall, and then she was by the door, ducking under the arm of the third and shoving him head first against the railing that lined the elevator car.

The fourth man was eye to eye with her and she snarled at him, grabbing the front of his shirt, and lifting as she pushed backwards, throwing him back and away from her. Her hand slammed down on the elevator control, and the car lurched in to action.

They all stared at her, confused, and hurting.

She arched her neck and stared back at them, then she grabbed the nearest one, and plucked his hotel room key from his pocked, folding her fingers around it. "I want to make sure I know who I'm going to report to the police."

"W.. w.. " The tall man wiped his nose, staring at the blood in bewilderment. "Didn't mean nothing."

"You meant to take out your horny fantasies on some poor, helpless woman." Dar spat. "You picked a bad choice of victims this time."

The elevator stopped on her floor, and she crossed briefly to the other side of the car, watching the men scramble away from her. She snorted, as she picked up her workout clothes, then exited into the carpeted hallway, letting the door slide shut behind her.

Then she slowly let out a shaky breath, and lifted a trembling hand to her eyes. She waited a minute to make sure her legs weren't going to collapse, then she headed towards her room, getting the door open and slipping inside with a sense of utter relief. She sat down in the nearest chair, and let her head rest against the back of it, staring up at the white popcorn ceiling until her heart rate began to resemble something more normal. "Bastards."

She got up, and ran her fingers through her dark hair, then walked to the desk and pulled her laptop out, plugging it into power and the phone line as she picked up the regular phone and dialed with her free hand. A moment later the front desk clerk picked up. "This is Dar Roberts in 1430. I was just attacked on the elevator by four drunken idiots from room... " She paused and glanced at the key in her hand. "209.. I want their names."

Dead silence for a moment, then. "My god.. I'll call the police." The girl's voice was clearly shaken.

"No." Dar spoke slowly and clearly. "I don't want you to do that, I want you to give me their names, and the company they work for."

It took about twenty minutes, and two front desk managers, but she got what she wanted, and in the middle of it, dinner showed up. She motioned for the tall, slim blond who delivered it to put the tray down on the table near the bed, and she waved the girl over for her signature.

A brief glance at the bill, then she scribbled her name, with the appropriate tip on the bottom. "Thanks."

The girl's eyes wandered over her appreciatively. "Anytime." She smiled, then turned to leave.

Dar's brow lifted, and a speculative smile crossed her lips, then she sighed, as the night manager got back on the phone. First things first. "Thank you." She noted down their names, and the corporation who was paying for them to stay there. It caused another smile to appear, this one not pleasant.

"But.. ma'am.. are you sure you don't want us to call the police? " The man protested. "I mean, surely.. they should be thrown out of here, at least."

"No no.. " Dar objected. "I'll take care of it.. you just leave them alone."

"Ms. Roberts.. are you sure?" The manager sounded worried.

"Yeah, I'm sure." Came the quietly confident reply. "Thank you." Dar hung up, then noticed the room service waitress was still at the door.

"Sorry to evesdrop... " The girl didn't look sorry at all. "But are you talking about those creeps on the second floor?" She leaned agaisnt the door and regarded Dar. "The four guys.. look like overage football players?"

Dar nodded. "Probably.. why?"

A shake of her blond head. "No one'll go up there except for the older guys from the kitchen.. they keep grabbing anything that's capable of wearing a skirt."

The executive smiled quietly. "Oh really?" She had booted her laptop, and watched it connect to the system in Miami. She started a terminal session and logged into the corporate database, sending a rapid query, and drumming her fingers until it came back. She nodded, then picked up the phone and dialed, aware of the hazel eyes watching her with interest. On the fourth ring, it was picked up. "Gary Sanrichon?"

The voice sounded puzzled. "That's me.. who is this?"

"Dar Roberts." No introduction, no company name. She suspected it wouldn't be needed.

"Oh.. uh... "Sanrichon sounded startled. "My god.. it's.. what can I do for you, Ms. Roberts?"

She read off the names of her attackers. "They yours?"

A pause. "Salesmen.. yes." Sanrichon replied warily. "Why?"

"They're drunk and attacking women here in the Hyatt in DC." Dar replied. "You could do me a favor and make them gone. Now." Her voice dropped to a low, demanding growl.

Shocked silence. Then. "I'll take care of it." Now Sanrichon's words were hard, and clipped.

"Thanks." The executive smiled contentedly. "Night." She hung up the phone, and glanced at the girl, who was watching her with wide eyes. "Too bad for them they work for a subsidiary of ours, huh?" Dar commented, as she watched the laptop download mail, then wandered over to the tray and picked up her milkshake, sucking at it with a satisfied slurp. Her eyes looked up under dark lashes at the girl. "What's your name?"

"Sherry." The blond replied softly. "What's going to happen to those guys?"

Dar shrugged. "Don't worry about it... they'll be out of your hair by the morning, I can guarantee that." She peeked under the domed lid of one of the dishes, and captured a jalapeno popper, biting into it and chewing with pleasure. "Maybe they'll learn a lesson."

"Maybe." The girl replied. "I'll.. be back to get that tray later on." She motioned towards it.

Dar lifted ice blue eyes to hers, and smiled. "Sounds good to me." She watched the girl swallow hard, then slip out, not without a backward glance at her, chuckling wryly as the door closed. "Oh.. Dar, you seducer of children.. that was awful." She sighed, then got out of her still damp bathing suit, hanging the thin black fabric over the shower bar in the bathroom to dry.

Her cotton tshirt felt good after the dampness, and she sprawled out onto the bed, pulling the tray closer and examining it's contents, then flicking the TV on and setting it for the movie. She was about to start it, when her laptop chimed, and she scowled at it. "I know I have mail. I always have mail. I even had mail after the goddamn servers were downed for eight hours, and it was three am." The laptop chimed again, and she sighed, then slid off the bed and padded over to it, grabbing the machine and taking it back with her to the bed after disconnecting the phone line.

She settled back down on the dark blue comforter, and peered at the mail list. "BS.. BS... BS... corporate newsletter.. oh, like I need to read that.. BS... Dukky... BS.. ah." She clicked on the seventh message down, from fairly early that morning.

Kerry Stuart; Sent 10:32 AM

Ms. Roberts - there are some additional items that I need clarification on. Firstly, regarding the support issue. If you were to take over the support of these products, you would need to add several skills sets to your existing support center that they do not presently have.

These would include hardware support for the POSIX backends, the thermal slip printers, and the touch screens, none of which duplicates existing support environments you currently have. The training on these items is extensive, and ongoing - your cost center would have to include budget for this training, where we already possess the skill sets.

Likewise, your programming group is concentrated in TPF, and our code is written in C, with a good deal of assembler modules custom designed for the service sector. You do not have programmers qualified in this, and would have to acquire ours, or provide extensive training to bring your own staff up to speed. Our clients require frequent patches and updates, as their environments change, and they are dependent on us to be able to rapidly react to the changing food service world.

Therefore, I believe it is in your best interests to retain the services of the existing groups employed by Associated. My proposal regarding your budgetary demands will be directed accordingly.

Please indicate if you feel this reasoning is incorrect.

K. Stuart

I apologize for my tone and manner this morning - but you can imagine how disturbing the actions of your procedure team was.

Dar munched another popper, and took a sip of her milkshake, a smile tugging at her lips. Kerry had obviously put her access to their corporate systems to good use, and she had made some very valid points. "Good girl, Kerry." She paused, remembering the woman's hostile response at having her first name used, and some of her good mood evaporated.

Why the hell should I care? The logical answer was, of course, that she shouldn't, but for some reason she found herself intrigued by Kerry Stuart's potential, and her intelligence, and she really didn't want to be the damn woman's enemy.

She sighed. Trouble was, Kerry was determined not to let her not be. Their first meeting had been a disaster.. maybe... well, that last line indicated she was at least willing to listen.. perhaps Dar could mend fences just a little.

She stuffed a laden nacho into her mouth, then started a reply.

**************************************************************

Kerry absently munched on a slice of lukewarm pizza as she paged through yet another spreadsheet. She'd been at it for hours, since she'd gotten home, and she realized she was about ready for a break when the screen started to go fuzzy on her.

Coincidentally, a knock rapped on her door at the same time. She stood, and hissed, as her back protested it's tenure in the same position, and she limped to the door, peeking through the security hole then pulling it open. "Hey, Colleen." She smiled at the short redhead who bounded inside. Colleen McPherson was the first neighbor she'd met after she moved into the complex, and she'd remained a close friend ever since.

"Hey, Kerry... whatcha up to?" Colleen wrinkled her snub nose and looked around. "Whoa.. hold on.. don't tell me YOU are eating pizza.. no no.. must be a pod... I'm calling the FBI."

Kerry laughed a little sheepishly. "I had no choice.. I'm doing this project, and I didn't have time to cook... I was starving." She closed the door, and walked back over to her desk. "You want some?"

Colleen peered at the box. "Ohmigod.. and you actually ate half of it.. I'm going to pass out." She teased her friend. "Itís not even a veggie pizza."

The blond woman sat down, letting her arms rest on her thighs. "I'm not a vegetarian, Col.. you know that." She objected. "I just like to eat healthy.. is that a crime?"

The redhead took a slice and chewed it. "What is a crime is that you hardly eat enough to sustain a rabbit, much less a human being..."She plucked at Kerry's shirt, which hung on her. "Now that.. is not healthy."

Kerry shrugged a little. "I'm fine.. I just... " She hesitated. "I get a lot of grief at home if I put on weight.. it's just easier not to." She tried for an offhand tone, and almost succeeded.

Grief.. was a mild way of putting it. The first year she'd been down here, things had been hectic, work was very involving, and she really didnít have time to do much other than go to the office, come home, try to get the apartment settled, and study for her networking certifications. It led to a lot of late nights and take out food, and an extra twenty pounds that had gotten her nothing but nagging and complaints when she'd gone home for Christmas.

Which was a lousy time for that, and had caused her to end up spending most of the holiday avoiding people, her father especially, and she'd vowed she'd never have to go through that again. So she stuck to carrots, and lots of walking and bike riding, which got things pretty much under control. In fact, Colleen was her walking and roller blading buddy, since the short redhead was constantly battling her own tendency to roundness.

And it sucked, Kerry sighed, because she was an admitted chowhound. She loved to eat and it was so hard to constantly say no to that. But she did, because hearing her father's censorious voice was even worse, and her mother never failed to ask her about it on their weekly phone calls.

Then of course, there was Brian. Her erstwhile almost fiancé. His daddy had done a big favor for her daddy, so when he asked to marry her... Daddy had said yes. Kerry didn't dislike Brian.. he was a tall, very good looking young man with impeccable manners, intelligence, and good work ethics, who was just about to graduate law school. By all accounts, a great match, and he was crazy about her. And to be fair, she liked him, they'd been friends for years, and she'd had a lot of fun doing things together.

In fact, they seemed like a natural pair. He'd taken her to their senior prom, and one of her mother's favorite pictures was the two of them posing in front of their house, dressed in formal wear and very serious expressions for that very occasion.

Natural. Hm.. yeah. Kerry exhaled, then put a smile on. "So.. like I said, it's just easier.. my folks give me such a hard time, you know how that is."

Colleen rolled her eyes. "Do I ever." She put her hands on her hips. "Colleen Katherine McPherson, if you donít start doing something with yourself, you'll be big as the Queen Mary one of these fine days." Her voice went high and singsong, to imitate her irrepressible Irish mother.

Kerry laughed. "Oh god... that's so like her." Colleen's family lived nearby, and Kerry had been invited over several times for dinner. She liked the feisty redhead, and was glad to have someone to just hang out with sometimes. Colleen worked for Barnett Bank as their chief teller, and was a few years older than Kerry. She was funny, and very outgoing, the legacy of growing up in a large, boisterous family.

"So.. what's the project?" Colleen looked around her apartment. "Jesus Mary, Ker.. did a paper fairy poop all over here or what?"

The blond woman leaned back in her desk chair and took another slice of pizza. "No.. " She sighed. "We got bought out."

"Ew.. I heard." The shorter girl made a face. "Are you guys in trouble?"

"Yeah." Kerry admitted. "They'd really like to just get rid of us all, and keep the customers, but I'm trying to pitch them a plan where at least some of us keep our jobs." Her shoulders slumped. "I donít think they're going to buy it, though." She spared her computer a glance, as her mail indicator lit. "Here's the confirmation, probably." She reached over and clicked on the envelope, bringing the new message to the foreground. "Yep." She confirmed, seeing the name of the sender.

Dar Roberts; Sent 10:45 PM

Ms. Stuart,

You bring interesting points to the table. While I have the utmost confidence in the ability of our support teams to assume responsibility for your product line, your personnel do bring a certain level of knowledge that it might be costly for us to duplicate. Please continue with your proposal.

"Oh... wow." Kerry breathed, as her eyes dropped below to the somewhat longer paragraph underneath.

I know that this is a very difficult process you are attempting, and I appreciate the effort you are putting into it. I think you are talented, and intelligent, and I really don't want this to be such an adversarial situation. I realize our initial meeting got started off in the wrong direction, and that I should have assured that our project team had briefed your upper management on what to expect before we began the process. For that, I apologize.

DR

She oddly felt lighter all of a sudden. A tiny smile edged her lips, and she sat back with a heartfelt sigh. "What do you know? She bought it. Sort of."

Colleen had been unashamedly reading over her shoulder. "Hey.. " She poked Kerry in the shoulder. "That's not the Dar Roberts, is it?" She whistled under her breath. "They do our ACHTAPE processing... there was a foul-up one day and a whole tape spool got screwed.. our managers were raising hell all over the place, blaming them to high heaven, then this Roberts woman shows up, and spends ten minutes in the vault, and finds the problem on our end." She rolled her eyes. "God, we didn't hear the end of that for weeks."

"Well." Kerry shook her head. "I can't imagine there being more than one of her at that company, so I guess it is... tall, tanned, dark hair?" She paused. "Really blue eyes?"

Colleen gave her a rakish grin. "That'd be her... rumor says she's a real bitch on wheels." She peered at the email. "Hmm... looks like she likes you, though." She looked at Kerry, impressed. "Wow...she thinks you're talented and intelligent... I guess she has a few brain cells after all."

Kerry blushed. "Stop it." She reread the mail, and try as she would to remind herself of just how angry she'd been at Dar, the typed words made her feel pretty good anyway. Maybe because it was so unexpected.

Yeah.. that was it. She hadn't figured on getting a positive response from the woman, or even a response at all, so getting this was just.. so surprising. "She's probably just patting me on the head. " Kerry finally said, offhandedly. "You know.. donít get the natives restless until you steal all their diamonds, that kind of thing."

"Probably." Colleen agreed cheerfully. "Hey... take a break, and let's go for a walk down to the bakery."

Kerry hesitated. "Um...okay, sure.. I can use a break.. listen, why don't you get your bike, and I'll meet you out on the street?" She smiled as Colleen quickly agreed, and watched as the redhead trotted out, closing the door behind her. Then she turned her attention to the screen and tapped her fingers on her keyboard, trying to decide what to reply.

Be nice.. be snippy... be formal...

What the hell. The worst old Cruella could do is fire her.

Hello....

Thank you for saying what you did. You're right - this is a tough situation, and I wish I wasn't in it. But I am, and I have to make the best of it, so I'm going to keep on trying.

I know we're just one small piece of a cog in your giant machine, and that you really donít care one way or the other about any of us - and I understand that I'm one more in a series of problems you have to deal with. I guess it must get monotonous for you after a while, but for me, this is a situation I never wanted or dreamed I'd be in. I don't like having my world, and that of everyone around me torn apart. But I guess you're used to that.

I know you're just doing your job, and Iím glad it's yours and not mine. We did get started off pretty badly, and I think that's partly my fault too, because I took my frustration at what was happening out on you, and maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to do that. I realized afterward you could have just fired me right there, so it probably wasn't the smartest thing I ever did.

She stared at the screen for a long moment before she continued, debating with herself. Finally she completed the message, then hit send. "So much for that... " She nodded briskly, then dusted her hands off, and went to the closet, retrieving her dark purple mountain bike and checking the tires. She glanced at her helmet, on the high shelf above, and decided the short ride down Kendall Drive didn't need it.

************************************************************

Dar stood quietly, her hands behind her back, gazing out the window. She was doing her best to ignore the frustrated ranting and raving of the man behind her, who was pacing up and down and throwing his hands around.

"Look, Peter.. just shut up." The tall woman finally said, turning around. "Let me go in there, and do my job, and we'll argue about it afterward, okay?" She gave the man a look. "I didn't ask to get sent here, I didn't ask to have to break up your little party, and I certainly didn't ask to have you blowing hot air at me for forty five minutes."

"Everything is under control." The man stated, through clenched teeth. "I'll be damned if you're going to walk in there and take the credit for something I've broken my ass for."

Dar walked over, and looked him right in the eye. "You don't have a choice."

"Like hell I don't!" Peter shouted. "I'll call Les!"

A brilliant smile slapped him in the face. "Who do you think sent me?"

His breathing was suddenly loud in the silence. "You're lying, you frozen ass bitch."

Dar ignored the insult, and picked up the nearest phone receiver, holding it out to him with her eyebrows raised, a mocking smile on her face. "Come on.. call him."

The tall man's nostrils flared, and his lips writhed into a snarl, but he made no move to take the phone.

The receiver dropped back into the cradle with a click. "Now. Get out of my way, and just keep your mouth shut." Dar brushed by him, as the door opened, and two tall military men stepped into the room. "Hello, General." Her voice dropped a pitch, and took on a seductive tone as she stepped up next to the older of the two.

The man's eyes focused on her, and his eyes lit up. "Ms. Roberts... it's always, always a pleasure." He took her hand and kissed the back of it with a courtly bow, then spread his arm towards the door. "Come on in... let's talk" His eyes drifted to Weyrhousen. "Thanks.. we'll see you later."

Dar, her face hidden by her position, bit her lip to keep a laugh in, then cleared her throat as the door shut behind them. "That wasn't nice, Gerald."

The elderly general chuckled. "He's an ass, Dar."

She shrugged a little, then took the proffered seat in front of his desk, and leaned back, as the military man settled in his thickly stuffed chair. "He's not that bad.. he's just hasnít been around the big stuff like I have." She explained wryly. "You soldier boys freak him out."

Gerald Easton smiled at her. "Dar, you look good.." He mused, studying the tall woman across from him.

She inclined her head. "So do you.. how's the Pentagon treating you?"

"Eh." He made a hand gesture. "Biggest pile of horse droppings east of the Potomac... and now they want us to repaint everything. Did you hear that? Some idiot kid came in and did a study, told some damn politician that the camouflage we've been using since nineteen aught eight doesn't work. We gotta paint everything shades of pink and beige."

Dar made a face. "Ugh."

"Yeah, ugh is right." The general turned to his aide, who had been standing quietly watching them. "Eileen, can you get Ms. Roberts and I a pitcher of something cold, please?"

The aide nodded briskly and disappeared.

They looked at each other in comfortable silence for a moment. "Dar, you look more and more like your daddy every time I see you." The older man sighed, a gentler expression in his eyes. "Same nose, same chin... damn, girl." He paused. "I miss him."

Dar's eyes dropped to his desk, and she exhaled softly. "So do I."

"He'd be proud of you, that's for sure." A gentle twinkle entered the general's eyes. "Imagine him seeing you practically running that joint.. I can just imagine his face."

Blue eyes drifted. "I don't know about that, Gerry." Dar shook her head a little. "I don't think he'd see it as very honorable... you know what we are." She paused. "He was always looking out for the little guy.. we make a corporate policy of eating them alive." She gave him a wry look. "But here I am... so what's the score?"

Old eyes studied her for a long moment, then the general pulled a file folder out from his desk drawer and tossed it over to her. "All yours, rugrat." He chuckled fondly at the look on her face. "Naw.. it's not charity... you were pretty close in the bidding, and.. let's just say I just felt more comfortable awarding a defense contract this large to someone I trust."

Dar drew the folder over, and ruffled through the contents. Her brows rose.

"Yeah.. I threw in a couple others... and that damn IRS website support contract.. please, Dar.. get them off my back, willya? They can't keep that thing running to save their lives."

"I'll do my best." Dar replied, with a shake of her head. Peter was going to go completely insane when he saw this. She hid a smirk. Arrogant ass. "I'll make sure you get taken care of."

"I know it." The general said, then hesitated. "Hear from your mother?"

A faint flinch tugged at Dar's face. "No." She replied quietly, with a faint shrug. "Not since the funeral... I don't think I ever will."

"Bitch." Gerry muttered under his breath. "Like it was your fault he decided to put his hand in the field one last time."

Dar stared at the carpet, a sturdy maroon tweed. "They were inseparable, Gerry... I remind her of him too much, I guess." Her voice was quiet, and even. "He was her whole world." And all she had left really was pictures, eight or ten treasured photos of her tall, dark haired father, mostly in fatigues, one with his arm wrapped around her shoulders, the two of them looking more like brother and sister than father and daughter.

She remembered the solidness of him, the sturdy, powerful body whose shoulder she'd dampened with tears on more than one occasion. She tried not to remember that last goodbye, not often. Not unless she was alone, with the stars, or the endless stretch of the water.

The general exhaled, then he got up and moved around the desk, holding his hand out to her. "Come here, rugrat." He tugged on the hand she extended to him, and pulled her up into a hug. "Your daddy was one of my best friends, you know that, right?"

Dar allowed herself the luxury of accepting the embrace, feeling the scratchy wool of his uniform against her cheek. The smell, a mixture of dry cleaning and leather, brass and starch was very familiar. "I know that." She gave him a pat on the back as he released her. "He was a good man."

The general leaned back against the desk, studying her. "He was a very good soldier." He acknowledged. "I always half expected you to follow in his footsteps." His hand patted her arm. "You've got his strength, you know."

Dar let a tiny smile shape her lips. "I save my battles for the boardroom, Gerry... " She held up the folder. "It can be just as dangerous, but lacks the bullets."

The aide returned, and handed them both a glass of frosty ice tea, already sweetened. Then she discretely left, at a hand signal from the general. They silently toasted each other, and Dar felt herself relaxing a little as the cold beverage slid down her throat. It was always hard, seeing Gerald Easton, but it was getting easier with time, and she knew one day she'd see the old general, and not think of her father first. "Well, I'd better get going.. I need to be on the noon flight back into Miami."

Easton set his glass down, and folded his arms across his chest. "Why not spend the night over, Dar? Mary would love to see you, and Jack's in town." His eyes twinkled again. "You know he's madly in love with you."

Dar gave him a rueful grin. Gerald's husky, blond son certainly did flatter her with gentle, almost hesitant attentions when they were together, and she really didn't mind doing things with him. They'd spent a great time last year touring the Civil War battlefields in the area, and the thought of just relaxing in Jack's peaceful presence was tempting. "Gerry.. I have to admit to you.. if I was going to marry anyone, it'd be Jack.. he's the sweetest guy I know."

Easton beamed. "Welcoming you into my family would be one of the bright points in my life, Dar.. you know that." He shook a finger at her. "Don't be so fast to wave off marriage.. I know you're tied up with your career, but you should give it a chance sometime." He put a hand on her arm. "Give yourself a chance.. c'mon, stay over."

Dar sighed. "Honestly, I wish I could.. but I'm right in the middle of a mess down there.. I can't afford the time." She gave him an honestly regretful look. "I'll take a near future rain check, though."

"Hm." He glanced at her shrewdly, tacticians mind working. "Hey.. why don't you come up for Christmas?" He cocked his grizzled head at her. "Have a real holiday... tree, maybe some snow, the works, huh?"

The tall woman was caught offguard. "Maybe I will." She murmured softly. "Thanks for the invitation, Gerry."

His gray eyebrows waggled, and a smile of mild military triumph crossed his face. "Anytime, rugrat...now g'wan and get outta here, before your pinch butted Norwegian out there throws a shoe."

"He's Dutch." Dar corrected wryly.

"Dutch, Norwegian, I'm a soldier, what in blazes do I know about all those neutral countries?" He countered, with a grin. "I can tell a German from a Frenchman, and an Italian from a Jap."

Dar, who could distinguish between Miami's several dozen ethic Latin groups without difficulty, just smiled back. "Nice seeing you, Gerry.. give my best to Mary and Jack, all right?"

"I sure will." The general promised. "Have a good flight, and take care of yourself, hear?"

"I will." Dar told him, then picked up her folder, and glided out the door, straightening her shoulders as she spotted Weyrhousen approaching from the window where he'd been pacing. Without a word, she handed him the folder, which he almost dropped.

"What is.. " His eyes scanned the contents, and his jaw tightened. "That son of a bitch."

Dar exhaled. "Post them. I'm taking off."

The man looked at her bitterly. "What did it take to get this.. you do him on top of his desk?" He asked, sarcastically. "Easy for you, just go in and show him a little ass, is that it?"

For a frozen moment, Dar struggled with the urge to strike him. It showed in her pale eyes, she knew, because Weyrhousen backed off a step, and she concentrated on her breathing, holding down the fury which threatened to overwhelm her. Finally, she took a breath. "You know, Peter.. for someone who has to take twice weekly impotence drugs, you sure are hung up on sex." Medical files and ex hackers were useful things, Dar had concluded long ago. "Maybe you should get some pointers from the old boy?"

She turned, without waiting for an answer from him, and simply left.

************************************************************

"Dar... when are you leaving?" Maria stood in the doorway, her bag slung over her shoulder. It was Friday night, at the end of one of the worst weeks the secretary could remember. She watched her boss with concern, seated behind the large wooden desk with the fading sun behind her. "Dar?"

"Hmm?" The executive glanced up from her monitor, giving the woman a wry look. "I've got to finish up this damn financial report, Maria.. it'll be a few more hours yet." Her desk was scattered with fanfold reports, most of them custom, most of them with her login displayed prominently on their topsheets, indicating she'd run them herself. "It's called burying the bodies, Maria... I've got to hide two rank disasters in these numbers, and somehow make it come out ahead.. I think I've got one covered, but if Travel and Transportation doesn't come up with their numbers in about an hour, I'm going to have to drive down there and beat them out of them with a baseball bat."

She sat back, and reviewed the spreadsheets for the dozenth time. It was like building a puzzle that had too many pieces. You had to pick which one you used, and the pickings were getting ugly tonight.

Of course.. Dar glanced at the folder containing the Associated files. It would be easier just to claim the entire account as new business in the applicable areas, and destructure the cost side, by disbanding the company. Easier, and it would make the numbers work, on top of it, allowing her to go home after almost thirty six straight hours of working on the project.

She wouldn't need to hide anything else, and T and T's numbers wouldn't matter.

In fact, twice she'd done just that, her fingers hovering over the submit keys, and then she'd backed off, for reasons she really didn't quite have a handle on.

Maybe it was the persistent optimism of Kerry's notes, as the young manager worked and reworked her numbers, getting closer and closer to the goal Dar had set.

A goal which was probably irrelevant by now, unless a miracle happened.

She knew she should just call the damn woman, and tell her to give it up.. go home, and just reconcile herself to the unpleasant reality of the situation, but every time she punched the dial button, her eyes fell on the latest of Kerry's plans, and she stopped, and went back to searching her spreadsheets yet again.

The phone buzzed, and she slapped it. "Yeah?"

Duks voice. "T and T's numbers just processed." He shuffled some papers. "They suck."

Dar closed her eyes, and hit the refresh on her page, opening them when she heard her hard drive stop churning. The bottom line blinked at her, and she felt an overwhelming weariness settle on her shoulders. "We need to fire someone over there." She commented tiredly.

"Mm." Duks agreed, his voice sounding equally tired. "Too late for this, though... I'll make you a list of my favorite candidates for the Burger King line." The VP Finance, one of Dar's closest allies, was a pragmatist if anyone was.

"Thanks, Dukky." The tall woman replied. "All right...is Mariana still there?" Mariana Cruz was the VP Personnel, who worked hand in fist with Dukky, and, some said, was sleeping with him. Dar didn't care, and thought they made a cute couple, but company rules were company rules.

"She's right here."

"I'm going to have to cut all of Associated loose, Mari." Dar said, quietly. "You might as well start setting up the packets... queue the worklists to me."

"All right, Dar." The lightly accented voice answered. "They never really transitioned, so it's just a matter of W4 notification."

"I know... bastards won't even get two weeks." Dar exhaled. "Let me go finalize this... you'll get an update in a little while."

She hung up the phone and stared at the screen, pulling her alternate plan to the foreground, and processing it. The bottom line flickered, then resolved, and she gave it a little nod. "Sorry kid." She took a deep breath, and picked up the phone, dialing a number and waiting. Anyone who thinks it's all glamour, never had to do this. She mused, then straightened as the phone was answered, and she heard Kerry's soft voice.

"Associated Synergenics, Kerry Stuart."

"Ms. Stuart." Dar paused, to gathered her thoughts.

"Oh.. hello." Kerry cleared her throat. "Listen.. I know you're getting close to your deadline.. but I think I've got it... it took forever but I finally found some slack in the facilities budget.."

"I'm sorry, Ms. Stuart. It's just not going to fit in with our plans." Dar said quietly. "It was a good try, and you were on the right track, but it's not going to be possible."

Dead silence. "You son of a bitch.." Kerry's voice was strangled, with either rage or tears, Dar couldnít tell. "I hope you go straight to hell, because that's exactly where you belong."

The phone slammed down, and went dead.

Dar quietly replaced her receiver and let her hands fall to her thighs. It certainly wasn't the first time she'd been told that, and probably wasn't the last time, but after thirty-six hours with no sleep, her emotional defenses were in tatters, and it hurt. It got past her carefully cultivated and hardened attitude, and she let her head rest against the high backed chair with her eyes closed tight as the silence of the mostly empty building settled over her.

Finally, she got up and opened her top drawer, taking her keys out and throwing her jacket over her shoulders. She had till midnight to close the books. Right now, all she wanted to do was find some empty space, and salt air.

**********************************************

Kerry slammed her chair back, and stood, pacing over to the wall and staring at it. She let her anger build, until it was at the breaking point, then she let it loose, slamming her fist against the drywall surface with a crunch. The painful shock raced up her arm, and she pulled her hand back, to see a baseball sized dent in the wall that did little to release her fury.

"Lowdown piece of godforsaken.. I can't believe she did that." She fumed, letting her head come to rest against the abused wall. "A whole week of killing myself, for nothing. For NOTHING!" She knew she didn't have to worry about anyone hearing her, as she was alone in the building. She'd sent the rest of the staff home early, hinting that she might have good news for them on Monday.

It had been going so well.. her last two drafts had gotten cautious praise from Dar, and she'd allowed herself to hope that she'd actually be able to pull this off. Everyone had left in a good mood, and she'd heard several groups planning get togethers out in the Grove, or at Bayside, which was one of her own favorite spots.

She sat down on the edge of her desk and felt like crying. Then she decided she was just too tired and too mad to do that. "Might as well get out of here." She picked up her things and left her desk the way it was, covered with draft proposals and stacks of reports, not even looking back as she closed the light, and shut the door.

For a while, she just drove around aimlessly, taking I-95 down past the city center to see the lights come on as dusk dropped over the city. The sun setting in the west sent a wash of tropical orange light across the tall buildings, reflecting off the glass mirrored surface. The sky was layered with clouds, and each layer took on a different pastel shade, from burnished orange, to pink, to lavender as they spread across the horizon.

Kerry pulled off to the side near the interchange ramp, ignoring the bustling traffic and opening the top of her Mustang convertible as the warm, damp breeze blew in. The sunset painted it's hues as she watched, the dusk in the east causing the lights to emerge while the last rays put stripes across the highway.

It smelled like rain, and the breeze cooled, brushing humid tendrils across her arm where it rested on the windowsill.

It was beautiful, and now the tears came, and she let them, rolling down her face as a snatch of music blew by, rich with a Caribbean beat.

She sat there, until the sky darkened and the orange phosphor lights kicked on, bathing the highway in a surreal light, and dimming the stars overhead. Then she reluctantly started her engine, and pulled out into traffic, debating a moment, then choosing an exit a few minute later, and turning east.

The lights dimmed as she headed out over Rickenbacker Causeway, crossing Virginia Key and passing the old Dinner Key auditorium. She'd attended a dawn Easter mass here last year, and it held fond memories for her as the rising sun and the fresh spring air had brought new meaning to the holiday.

Across the second long bridge out to Key Biscayne, the first in the long chain of barrier islands which guarded the Florida coastline, and extended down to the last one, Key West, which was the southernmost point in the United States. Out here, even the ecology was different, and Kerry had taken a liking to the beachfront Crandon Park, which she now pulled into and got out of her car.

The sand was soft, and crunched softly under her shoes as she trudged across towards the water, passing a jungle of sea grapes, which rustled in the evening air. The ocean made a soft hissing as it ran up onto the shore, the onshore breeze bringing a heavy salt tang to her nose as she found a weathered bench and dropped onto it.

It was so different here. She sighed, and took in a deep breath of the thick air. She could see the soft white of the breakers over the sandbar just offshore and the blinking lights of ships coming into the port. A green and red path lined the navigation channel to her north, and right now a cruise ship was making it's stately way in, riding across the waves like a well lit castle. Here there was so many different kinds of people, and attitudes... you didn't like the culture? Wait five minutes, was a local saying. It was a mixture of Caribbean and South American, native and immigrant, exotic and bedrock old South. She could, in a drive of an hour, visit a western rodeo, an Indian reservation, Little Havana, Little Haiti, Old Florida, or the glittery vista of Miami Beach.

So different. So much more open, and accepting than the closed world she'd grown up in.

Her fingers played idly with the rough wood, rubbing large grains of sand between them as the salt air left a perceptibly dry feel on her skin. She stared between her feet, leaning over and picking up a brown and white speckled shell, perfectly shaped, which sat in the palm of her hand, it's gently ridged surface rippling under her fingertips.

Maybe she could find another job. If she did it quickly, she could say it was intentional, and by the time her parents figured out what happened, it would be over with, and she'd be settled into a new position.. who knew? Maybe she'd find something even better than what she had. Robert would give her an excellent recommendation, and Susan had mentioned a recruiter, one she really liked.

All right. But first she had to get through Monday, and she held no illusions that little Ms Cruella di Bitch would help them out in any way.. they'd probably find the goon squad there again in the morning, making sure they didn't steal the pencils on their way out.

Remembering her friend's optimistic voices was a very lonely feeling. She hoped they'd forgive her, for raising their hopes, and not being able to deliver what she'd promised herself she would. That final plan would have worked, too... yes, there were cuts. Fifty one people, in fact. But one hundred and seventy two would have been kept, and been productive... she'd made sacrifices everywhere, including training, and office furniture, benefits and prospective raises, the new phone switch they'd been planning, and the subsidizing of the snack machines. It would have been tight, and not as comfortable as it had been, but...

But.

Kerry threw the shell into the wind, watching as it dropped into the thick, cream colored sand. All for nothing. She walked to the water's edge, letting the lapping tide darken the toes of her shoes, and stared out at the uncaring Atlantic, until a large, fat raindrop struck her arm. With a sigh, she turned, and made her way back to the car, the scent of rain hitting the sun warmed pavement rising around her as she reached it.

She was all the way across the causeway, and had picked up the highway before she glanced down, and spotted her gas gauge. A soft curse emerged, as the red light winked at her implacably, and she looked around for the nearest exit. "Damn."

Northeast 2nd Street was the closest choice, and she headed down the ramp, turning left as she got to the light and moving down the quiet, back streets on the verge of the city. She had to stop at the next light, and the engine sputtered. She glanced around, then headed through the light as it turned green, but it sputtered again, then died, and she wrestled the car over to the side of the road as she lost power steering.

"Just my day." She sighed, as she let her head rest against the wheel, listening to the rain drum down on the convertible roof. Outside, dark forms ran to take cover in the overhung doorways of the silent buildings, their occupants left and gone home for the day. To her right, the highway loomed, and she could hear cars rushing by, leaving the city proper to its transient nighttime denizens.

She considered where she was, and realized there was no gas stations within several miles of her, and even those closest would mean a walk through the rain across the tracks, or through downtown, not the best of choices for a young woman alone at night.

Another thing hit her. She'd left the office without her briefcase, which meant she didn't have her wallet, any identification, or her credit and ATM cards. She dug through her change tray, and discovered she had exactly three dollars and sixteen cents, sufficient for enough gas to get her back to the office, but not enough for cab to get to the gas, and her filofax with numbers of everything including AAA was sitting on her desk.

She let out a breath, then dug out her cell phone. A quick try to Colleen's house went unanswered, and the two or three she knew from memory of her work colleagues did the same. Of course.. it was Friday night. They were all out.

She looked at the phone in disgust, then realized a piece of paper was stuck to the clip in the back. She pulled it out and stared at the number written on it, then let it fall to the seat beside her. She drummed her fingers on the console, then leaned forward and peered through the rain, to where several of the dark figures were standing, seemingly watching her.

Her eyes went to the piece of paper again, and she picked it up. "Well, that bitch owes me a phone call to the auto club, at least." She muttered, then dialed the number. "I'll call her stooge, and have him send over a couple of gallons of gas."

It rang four times, and she almost hung up, before the ringing stopped, and a crackle indicated an open line. "Hello." The quiet voice was almost unrecognizable.

Kerry hesitated, startled, and then cleared her throat. Oh damn.. didn't it just figure this was her blasted number? "Hi... um.. never mind." She hung up, unable to go through with asking for help from a woman she'd just told off an hour and a half ago.

The rain drummed harder, and she almost missed the soft sound of her phone ringing. Surprised, she glanced down at it, then pressed the talk key. "Hello?"

"Ms Stuart?" Dar's voice was more familiar now, and held a cool questioning tone. "Is there something you wanted?"

Well. Kerry sighed. At least she's not telling me off. "This is kind of stupid, and I... well, I didn't know this was your phone, really.. I was just looking for someone to make a call for me. I'm... I donít' have my phone book with me." It felt very awkward.

Momentary silence from the other end. "So.. what's the number?"

Kerry hesitated. "Well, I don't... I don't know, is the problem.. I'm kind of stuck, and I need the auto club." She bit the bullet and went on. "Look.. I ran out of gas, and I just need them to bring me a few gallons so I can get back to the office."

"Oh." Dar seemed to consider this. "Where are you?"

Kerry told her.

"That's not a good area." The executive commented.

"I know." The blond woman answered. "It's pretty creepy right now." She paused. "Thank you for not hanging up on me."

Another long silence. "Until I process my worklist on Monday, you're still an employee of mine. You used my company cell phone. Something happens to you now, and you've got grounds for a pretty big lawsuit."

Kerry was at a loss for words. "Wh.. why would you assume I'd do that?"

"You assume the worst of me, I figure I should return the compliment." Dar replied. "Hold on, I'm getting the number. " The sound of a second phone was barely audible in the background.

Kerry was too tired to be angry. "All right. Well, thank you for making the call for me." She answered softly. A motion caught her eye, and she glanced out of the windshield, which was fogging a little from her breath. "Um." The group of shadowy forms had switched doorways, and were now just opposite her. "Maybe you better call the police instead."

"Why?" Dar's voice sharpened.

"Oh.. my god.. " Kerry ducked as the bat hit the windshield, scattering glass over her body. Hands reached and grabbed her, and the cell phone was torn from her grasp. She twisted, hearing Hispanic curses, and gasped as fingers gripped her upper arm, dragging her towards the shattered window. Her shirt ripped, and she felt rain against the bare skin of her chest, then cruel fingers grabbed her bra strap and yanked it.

A hand entangled itself in hair and pulled sharply, and she was forced to let go of the steering wheel she'd had a death grip on, as water was now pelting in the open window and she could smell dirt, and alcohol and old, stale garlic.

The roar of the rain grew louder, and she fought against the hands, her body scraping over broken glass as flashes of lightning suddenly light up the scene. She heard a crunch, then a scream, and one grip loosened. She twisted hard against the other, and heard an odd, cracking noise, then the hands were gone, and she was panting in terror, curling up in a ball in the front seat and covering her head with her arms.

Then light hit her closed eyes, and she heard the lock work on her passenger side door. A gust of wind and rain blew in as it opened, and she huddled down further in the seat, biting her lip hard and tasting blood inside her mouth.

A hand on her arm. Gentle, not grasping. "Hey."

Kerry felt a shock course through her, and she lifted her head, opening her eyes to see pale blue ones gazing back at her, outlined in the light of a powerful hand lamp. "Oh.. it's you."

Dar blinked, and removed her hand. "Yes, it is."

"Where.. " Kerry glanced around fearfully, searching for her attackers. "Where did they... "

"They're gone." Dar replied quietly. "Guess they thought I was the cavalry or something asinine like that."

The blond woman let out a shuddering breath. "Oh my god." She slowly uncurled, and picked up a piece of the shattered windshield, then let it drop. "Perfect end to a perfect day." She murmured softly, exhausted. "But thank you.. for coming along and scaring them off."

Dar flexed a hand out of Kerry's line of sight, wincing at the soreness. "No problem." She glanced up at the weather, then at the slumped form across from her. Part of her knew she should just walk away, and let this woman who hated her handle her own problems.

She sighed, bowing to the other part of her which wouldn't hear anything of it. "All right.. come on over and get in my car.. I'll call the cops." She waited for Kerry to open her mouth to protest, and put a hand up when she did. "Look, I'll just wait for them to get here, then I'll be out of your sight.. I know I'm not your favorite person right now."

"Donít." Kerry put a hand on her arm. "Please don't call the police." She raked shaking fingers through her damp hair. "I have a friend who can fix this.. I donít want reports and all that." Not where her father could hear about them, and she knew he had lots of friends in the police department who kept their eyes open for things like that.

Dar studied the pale fingers curled around her wrist, then lifted her eyes to Kerry's face in mild puzzlement. "All right." She gazed at the smaller woman. "You need to get those cuts taken care of though."

Kerry gazed down at her arms tiredly. "I'll take care of them." She self-consciously tugged the shreds of her shirt around her, and looked up at Dar. "I guess I just need those couple of gallons of gas."

The tall, dark haired woman stared pensively at her for a moment, then gave her head a little, negative shake. "I have a better plan." She announced. "I'll get your car towed wherever you want it, and I'll drive you home."

"I can't ask you to do that." The blond replied softly. "But thank you for offering."

"You're not asking, and I'm not offering. "Dar answered. "You need it done, and I'm insisting." She pulled a cell phone from her back pocket and flipped it on, dialing a number from memory. "John?' She queried, when a voice answered. "I need a pickup and tow. It's Dar."

A long pause. "No, not me this time. Northeast 2nd and Flagler.. a forest green Mustang ragtop." Another pause. "Hang on." She glanced at Kerry. "Where do you want it?"

Kerry debated, then surrendered, and gave her address, which Dar repeated into the phone carefully. "Tarp the passenger side window, it's cracked." She added, then hung up. "Okay, let's go."

A sigh. "You're not going to take no for an answer, are you?"

"I usually don't, so no." The taller woman told her crisply. "Come on." She eased out of the passenger side, and waited for Kerry to gingerly emerge from the driver's side door, wincing as the rain hit her, and gasping as she put weight on her left leg. "Ow."

Dar sighed, and walked her over to the Lexus, which was parked haphazardly facing the Mustang, it's lights illuminating the scene. She opened the door, and guided Kerry inside, then shut it carefully behind her and walked around to the other side and got in.

Kerry was huddled against the door, with her arms wrapped around her, a shell-shocked look on her pale face. She plucked at the torn pieces of her shirt aimlessly.

"Here." Dar reached behind her, and pulled out a dark blue sweatshirt, which she handed to the younger woman. "Put that on... the air gets a little chilly in here."

The blond stared at the shirt. "No.. it's okay." She moved back a little.

"Look.. pretend you don't hate my guts for about another forty five minutes, and this'll be over, all right?" Dar snapped, her temper frayed at the edges from the stress of the situation.

Pale green eyes gazed back at her. "I don't." Kerry took the shirt gingerly. "I can't.. " She continued, when Dar was silent. "I know I should, but for some reason, I can't." Numbly, she pulled the sweatshirt over her head, and settled it around her. It had the word Navy embroidered across it in gold, and was lightly scented with Dar's perfume.

It was strangely comforting.

Dar started the car in silence, and pulled away from the curb.

**********************************************

Kerry walked into her office slowly, still feeling like she was in a daze. She'd remembered, as they pulled onto the highway, that all her things were still there, so Dar had nodded, and driven to her there without comment.

Now, the tall, dark haired woman entered behind her, and Kerry noticed for the first time that she certainly wasn't in one of her power suits. Water stained jeans and hightop sneakers, with a hooded sweatshirt minus it's sleeves painted a very different picture than the one her mind had insisted on drawing for her.

She looked a lot younger, for one thing, and Kerry suddenly realized the executive wasn't much older than she was. Her tanned skin seemed to absorb the light, and the pitiless flourescents revealed nicely toned muscles in her arms and shoulders which rippled softly as she moved around the office.

Dar's eyes stopped as she reached the desk, and she studied the piles of paperwork strewn forlornly across it. A look of regret crossed her face, and she lifted her gaze to meet Kerry's. "I know you did a lot of work on this."

Kerry perched on the edge of her desk, and riffled through a printout. "I almost wish I hadn't... I felt like I was coming so close... " She let the papers fall, and looked up. "Why?"

Dar sat down on the chair next to her, and let her forearms rest on her thighs. "It's complicated." She replied quietly. "A lot of things... just wouldn't fall into place, and I needed numbers." She shifted. "It was the last thing I threw out. " She reached over and nudged the report. "One last set of reports came in, and I just couldn't do it."

Kerry circled her desk, and sat in her chair, pushing the overlong sleeves back on the sweatshirt. "So.. we just become numbers." She commented softly. "I don't think I understand that very well."

A shrug. "It's what we all are."

"Mm." The blond woman murmured. "Even you?"

Dar nodded wearily. "If it's any consolation, I'm very sorry."

Kerry looked at her pensively. She no longer appeared to be the icy cold, practical executive. This was a person. One that under other circumstances... "Me too." She replied. "I'll probably end up going home...I'll miss a lot of things here."

The dark haired woman looked up. "There are other jobs out there... we might even have something you might... "

Kerry shook her head. "No." She took in Dar's puzzled expression. "It's complicated." She played with a pencil on her desk, turning it over and over. "You know.. it's really too bad, Ms. Roberts.. because in another place.. another time.. I think you and I might have been friends." She glanced up regretfully, and was captured in blue eyes that unexpectedly swallowed her whole.

But it only lasted an instant, and then Dar was sighing, and standing up. "Maybe." She ran a hand through her dark hair. "But right now, we should get you home." The executive stated. "I have to run back by my office and finalize things."

Kerry played with her pencil, biting on the eraser for a moment before looking up. "Can I come look at your numbers?"

It was.. outrageous. It was out of the question, completely insubordinate, and beyond the bounds of good business sense. She was exhausted, they both were drenched, Kerry was injured.. it was late... it was insanity to even consider.

"Sure." Dar wasn't sure that voice was even hers. What in hell did she think she was doing? Then she thought about it. Well, what could it hurt? The kid was sharp, and maybe a fresh set of eyes.... "I've got some first aid stuff there for those cuts."

****************************************

Kerry settled back into the leather seat, refusing to think about what she was doing. That left her mind free to watch the rain lash against the windshield during the drive crosstown, as she listened to the soft music Dar had chosen.

Her cuts hurt, but they weren't that bad, and her knee seemed only to be twisted. It wasn't giving her much trouble while she was sitting, though she suspected she'd be limping for a few days. Okay. So.. she survived a carjacking. Her eyes slid sideways, studying the sharp profile of her erstwhile savior. Thanks to Dar Robert's timely interruption.

The taller woman shifted her grip on the wheel, glancing right as she changed lanes, and Kerry noticed an ugly bruise that covered her knuckles. One was even scraped, and a stain of dried blood was visible in the low light from the dashboard. "What happened to your hand?"

Dar glanced down, then returned her eyes to the road. "I banged it into something." She answered absently.

Kerry looked down at her own hand, bruised from her earlier impact with the wall, and raised an eyebrow at the similar markings. Hmm. She supposed she should be in shock, still.. and maybe she was, but she could feel her natural optimism resurfacing, and she was a little surprised at how comfortable she felt being here with the enigmatic Dar.

She was running on pure adrenaline, though, and she knew it, and she hoped she was home in her own bed when everything came crashing down on top of her. She'd only slept a few hours the previous night, working on the report, and the long hours were beginning to wear on her.

Another look at Dar's profile made her wonder if the older woman wasn't having the same problem. There were shadows under her eyes that the dim light revealed, and she was blinking a lot, which was something Kerry did when she was very tired. "Guess you've been working pretty hard on this thing too, huh?"

Blue eyes flicked to her face. "It's been a long week, yes." Dar guided the Lexus into the parking lot of the corporate headquarters, and parked under the entrance overhang, ignoring the no parking signs. She got out and waved at the security guard as he emerged. "Just me, Jack."

The man waved back, and tucked himself back into his guard station, out of the rain. Dar waited for Kerry to join her, then lead the way into the building, swiping her security card at the entrance in a smooth, graceful motion.

Kerry tipped her head back as they entered the lobby, looking up through the atrium which went up the entire length of the building. "Whoa." She hugged the sweatshirt to her, glad of its warmth as the cold air flowed around them. "This is.. um... " She tried to find a politically correct term. "Um...it's.. "

"Pretentious." Dar commented wryly, as she keyed the elevator. "It's supposed to be." She held the door for her smaller companion, then let it close and punched the fourteenth floor, slipping her keycard in when the elevator beeped a complaint. "Lesser mortals are supposed to stand in awe in the lobby."

Kerry leaned against the wall and stifled a yawn. "Be careful, Ms. Roberts." She warned. "I might get the idea you have a sense of humor if you keep that up."

Dar looked at her, then slowly, the faintest hint of a grin twitched her lips. "Sorry." She denied the charge. "They make you leave that as a deposit when you get issued your keycard." She held up the item, then gestured for Kerry to precede her out of the elevator as it reached its destination.

Dar's office was dimly lit by her twenty one inch monitor, and the small desk lamp she usually worked by at night. Her screen saver was on, jungle animals prowling across the dark surface with soft sounds. As they approached the desk, a macaw cried softly, and Dar reached over and gave her trackball a spin, bringing up the worksheet she'd been looking at before she'd left earlier. "Take a look." She offered. "I'll get some Band-Aids... you want some coffee?"

Kerry perched on the edge of Dar's very comfortable leather desk chair, and looked around. "So.. this is how the other half lives, huh?" She murmured, then turned her attention to the dark haired woman. "Um... where are you going to get coffee at this hour?"

Dar looked at her. "The kitchen. Yes, or no?"

A blond brow lifted. "You have a kitchen in here? Let me guess.. it comes with a microprocessor that cooks things for you, right?" She saw Dar's lips twitch again and smiled herself. "Okay..okay.. sure. I'd love some coffee."

"Cream and sugar?"

Kerry sighed. "If I'm being good, I should say no, and no, but...."

Dar snorted softly, and disappeared.

The blond woman turned attention to the monitor, but not before she looked around, taking in the huge office with wondering eyes. The desk was smooth wood, its surface covered with reports as her own had been. The carpet was a thick burgundy, and there was a long, low slung couch to the right. The entire back wall was glass, and looked out over the bay to the ocean, right now showing the brilliant flashes of lightning and the thick swaths of rain that lashed against the clear surface.

It smelled of wood polish, and wool from the carpet, with a faint hint of the perfume she'd noticed that Dar wore.

That the shirt wrapped around her body also bore.

She decided she liked it.

Dar came back a moment later, bearing two steaming cups and a small kit tucked under her arm. She put one of the cups down in front of Kerry, and perched on the edge of her desk, tucking one leg up under her and leaning forward to point at the monitor. "That's the problem right there." She traced a column. "Watch what happens when I plug in your scenario" She did so, and the numbers changed. "I can't have that." A fingertip pointed at the last field.

Kerry took a sip of the coffee, then peered at it. "What is this?" She licked her lips. "Mm."

"Café con leche." Dar answered absently. "Cuban coffee with milk and sugar."

"Hell." Kerry laughed. "If they'd served it to me like this, I'd have drunk it more often."

They spent an hour going over the various approaches, and Kerry got a much better understanding of what it was Dar was trying to do. "Oh.. god... you have to show this all as an expense?" She pointed at her section. "But you can't show any of this as a profit, because it's past date?"

"Right." Dar sighed, biting on the edge of her cup.

Kerry sat back, stunned. "But that's not fair!" She protested.

The taller woman closed her eyes momentarily and rubbed them. "I know. But it's the law." She agreed wearily.

"What happens if you donít make that number?" Kerry pointed at the last field.

Dar peered at the screen, blinking. "Well... we don't show consistent growth.. and the stockholders go ballistic. That means we have to show austerity measures, and that... usually means a minimum level layoff."

Kerry thought about that. "How many people is that?"

"Between five to seven thousand." The executive replied quietly.

Green eyes lifted to hers. "Just like that?"

Dar nodded.

Kerry absorbed that. "So I guess my piddly little 230 people are kind of a minor thing." She commented softly, as she looked up at Dar. "Nothing personal, right?"

Dar's lips tensed, and she looked down. "Usually, yes." She admitted. "You don't like to waste resources, but... " One bare shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do."

Kerry studied the screen, flipping through the twelve different scenarios Dar had been working with. All save one included her solution. She let her hand rest on Dar's knee, searching the older woman's face intently. "I didn't understand." She stated quietly. "And I still don't, not really... but thanks for trying."

Dar glanced at her watch. "Eleven thirty. I've got to update this before midnight." She stared at the screen. "Damn... I just wish I could...." She traced a column with one finger. "Some way to put a plus there."

"Mm." Kerry examined the fields. "Like you can with that Miami group... because they take on outside stuff, so you can offset their expenses."

Dar froze, only her pale blue eyes darting across the wide screen. "Merde." She whispered. "Can your people do internet support? TCP/IP?"

Kerry stared at her. "Uh... um... what, yeah, of course.. the entire support group runs on an intranet... we've got three resident webmasters.. but what..." She yelped, and got out of the way hurriedly as Dar dove into her seat, her fingers racing across the keyboard in a rattle of keys.

"Son of a bitch.. son of a bitch... " The executive cursed softly. "Where are you...ah." She requested a screen, and scanned its contents. "Gotcha." One hand reached over and punched a series of numbers into the phone pad. It rang three times, then a voice answered. "Hello, Peter."

Frozen silence. "What the hell do you want?"

"I'm taking those two extra contracts." Dar informed him. "Don't bother protesting. Goodnight." She hung up, and hummed under her breath, as she recoded the projects, giving them a new classification. A few clicks, then she drummed her fingers, waiting for the mainframe to redraw the columns. "Ahhhhh.... " One hand snaked out, cutting a range out and clicking over to her spreadsheet, then pasting. She recalced the document, then sat back and smiled in triumph.

Kerry just watched her, confused.

Dar pointed at the last field. "I got my number."

The blond woman studied the sheet. "But that's got our stuff in it."

"Uh uhm." Dar agreed. "It sure does."

"How did you do that?" Kerry asked, entranced with the smile that now transformed the executive's face.

Which now grew broader. "I made fifty percent of your staff a profit center.. and awarded them two major government support contracts."

"Really?" Came the surprised reply. "Can you do that?"

A dark brow edged up. "I just did it." Dar grinned, then she sobered. "You'll still have to make those cuts." She made several rapid-fire keystrokes, then hit the transmit key. "It's done."

Kerry blinked. "But everyone else gets to stay?"

Dar nodded. "I got your list of people to transition... I think it's here... "

"I'm not on it." The blond said, very quietly.

Dar froze, then stared at her. "What?"

Kerry exhaled. "One of me... was worth two of them... I couldnít take two slots." She looked up at Dar.

"One of you is worth a lot more than two of them." Dar heard the words coming out, and couldnít call them back. Her exhaustion prevented it, and she almost knocked the phone off the desk when it rang. "Yeah?" She punched the button in irritation.

"Just got the update, Dar.. spectacular." Les' cheerful voice grated on her like beach sand. "Great job.. what do I owe you for this one? You going to finally take me up on using the chalet and taking a damn vacation for once?"

Dar stared at the phone in frustrated silence. "What do you owe me?" She finally asked. "I'll tell you want. I want fifty one six and sixes, and a head."

Les was stunned. She could hear him coughing a little. "Wh... "

"You heard me." The tall woman stated. "Come on, Les... that double digit's going to add twenty percent value to the stock. You can afford it."

"Well.. sure, Dar.. I'll put in the six and sixes... but what do you need a head for?" Les finally replied, collecting himself. "Whose orgid?'

"Mine." Dar replied quietly. "I've been forty eight hours without sleep on this one, Les.. I can't keep doing this. It's killing me. I need an assistant."

The man's attitude changed immediately. "Well, why didn't you just say so, you old pirate.. I've been trying to get you to take on a shadow for years now." The sound of a keyboard being accessed came through clearly. "You had me worried there for a minute... hang on.. hang on.. what are you, a 54010?"

"Mm." Dar replied, playing with pen.

"Done." Les chuckled. "On your worklist, baby....now I'm gonna go have a glass of champagne...you should too."

Dar closed her eyes wearily. "Sure, Les." She sighed. "Night."

Silence settled over the office. Dar kept her eyes closed.

"Forty eight hours?" Kerry finally said, in disbelief.

The dark haired woman nodded.

"That's insane...that isn't a job, that's a sentence." The blond spluttered.

Dar nodded again.

"You must have the worlds best job security, you know that? Nobody in their right mind would want your job."

A third nod. "Very true." Dar opened her eyes and gazed at the younger woman regretfully. "You ready to go home, Ms. Stuart?" She asked quietly. "We can negotiate your headcount on Monday... I'm sure I can squeeze you back in there." She paused. "If you want to stay, that is."

Kerry was perched on the edge of the desk, deep in thought. "I don't know." She replied honestly. "I have to think about it."

"I understand." Dar said, as she pushed herself to her feet.

"Ms. Roberts?"

"Mm?"

"What is a six and six?" Kerry asked, curiously.

"Oh." Dar stretched a kink out of her neck. "Severance packages for your people." She sighed. "Six months salary, and six months extension on your health benefits." Her eyes searched Kerry's shocked face. "Should make Monday a little easier for you." She stepped around the desk and started out the door. "Come on... let's get out of here."

Kerry was in a daze as she followed the taller woman out. Six months salary? If she decided not to stay, it would give her half a year to find something...and six months health benefits.. would cover her until she did. Her parents would never have to know, until she was all settled in a new place.

Her eyes studied the cloth covered back of the woman walking before her. She wondered how she had gone from how she'd felt about Dar Roberts before the sunset, to how she felt now. It felt like the night had lasted half a lifetime, to allow her to experience so much in such a short span. She'd gone from despair, to anger, to terror...from a frustrated hatred to a grudging admiration, all in one evening.

Did she want to remain in charge of Associated Dynamics? She'd been doing it for two years, and was just starting to get comfortable. The routine was becoming regular.. almost.. boring.

She suspected life would never be boring around Dar Roberts. And suddenly, she knew that's exactly where she wanted to be.

She didn't even stop to wonder why. "So." She trotted after the tall executive, catching her up as they reached the door. "What exactly are these other contracts?"

"Oh." Dar pushed the door open. "You'll be supporting the IRS."

Kerry stopped dead. "You're joking."

Pale blue eyes regarded her. "Can't be. I don't have a sense of humor, remember?" Dar replied, deadpan. "Goodnight, Jack." She waved at the security guard. "Ms. Stuart?" She held the door to the Lexus open.

The blond woman stepped next to her, and peered up. "Could you please call me Kerry?" She asked, with a wry smile. "You sound like the librarian at my college when you call me that other thing."

Dar's expression softened momentarily, and a quick smile transformed her face. "I thought only your friends called you that." She objected.

Kerry rubbed her jaw. "Well, friends and people who save my life. You know." She felt herself blushing a little. "I have to make an exception for that sort of thing."

"All right." The executive agreed softly. "But only if you call me Dar."

Kerry smiled. "Deal." She shook her head a little. "You know, you seem so familiar.. I wish I could remember where I know you from."

"Yeah." Dar agreed. "I feel that way too.. guess it'll come to us, someday."

"I guess." Kerry climbed up into the comfort of the leather seat, and waited for the taller woman to join her on the driver's side. "So." She folded her hands in her lap. "What does your assistant do?"

Dar shot her a quick look, as she shifted and started to pull out into the rain. "I don't know.. I never had one before." She paused. "It'll probably be a tough, unpleasant, thankless, wild ride."

Kerry sniffed reflectively, then buckled the safety belt around her securely, and settled back, folding her arms over her chest and glancing sideways.

She found Dar looking back at her.

They drove on into the night.


 Continued in Part 3