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The Buck Stops Here

Zita arrived at Lipsky and Load at her usual eight, despite hurting all over. She got in from her "If it's Tuesday this must be Belgium" trip late, caught fewer hours of jet lagged sleep than her body needed and got up at six to work out in her health club. The rough drafts of the contracts in her briefcase would easily bring fifty million in profits to the firm over the next two years.

Lisa had beaten her in, but was still settling in to the receptionist's desk at Zita's arrival. "How did things go while I was gone?" the smartly dressed Hispanic woman asked.

"Like the place could run without you?" Lisa grinned.

"That's why I have a personal assistant, where is he?"

"Who knows? We weren't expecting you in until this afternoon."

Zita sighed, it was not a good omen. One of these days she hoped to find a personal assistant who was marginally competent. She'd look through the folders on her desk, evaluate his reports and the work he'd done in her absence, and decide if he had a future here.

Zita wondered how the firm could survive without her. The eccentric collection of geniuses in the main lab complex didn't have the common sense of a chicken among the four of them. Zita knew Joss possessed common sense, perhaps Shego too. But Shego didn't work directly for the firm and Zita felt the green woman lacked ambition beyond herself and family. Zita said a little prayer of thanksgiving to have Joss on her side, but the younger woman was simply a valuable ally in her never ending battle to keep the firm profitable. Too often Zita felt like she was herding cats. What would they do without her?

She found an envelope from Wade on her desk. He and Joss were currently on the island. Zita wondered if they should drop the project – years of work that hadn't earned the firm a cent. Still, it could solve all humanity's energy needs if they succeeded, and it earned the firm an amazing level of international prestige. Zita skimmed Wade's message, nothing of substance to report, which did not surprise her. He and Joss missed Junior and would leave in three weeks. The Russian spy had proven totally incompetent and would be returning with them. The Chinese and Japanese spies were each contributing good ideas. If the two didn't kill each other Wade remained cautiously hopeful for a major breakthrough.

Wade wondered how the firm could survive without him. His vision had found a way to channel Drakken in a positive direction and kept the blue man in line. His skills found practical uses for Drakken's ideas – and frequently even found the ways to make them work. He and Joss. She probably understood Drakken's ideas better than he did – or simply had the patience to listen. And she encouraged him to keep working when he would have dropped an idea as totally impractical. What would they do without him?

At eight thirty Drakken bounced in. There was no necessity for him to arrive so early, but it was the third Wednesday of the month. All was right with the world. He would receive three more honorary doctorates in the spring, it had been almost two years since he last went off his meds and tried to conquer the world, and the only fly in the ointment could be endured. Colin Grant brought him meds and watched as he took them. "You don't have to watch me," Drakken grumbled.

"Just part of my job," Monique's baby brother said cheerfully.

Drakken wondered how the firm could get along without him. He had big ideas, the large vision. So what if he required someone like Joss to get them in working shape. Wade would still be creating things like laser lipstick or hair-dryer grappling guns without him, and the Possible twins would be content making bigger explosions. Those three should be more like Joss and listen to him – she recognized his value. What would they do without him?

At nine Zita called the law firm and caught Shego as she arrived. "I'm faxing over rough drafts of the European contracts. Will you make sure they get to Roger promptly? I'd like them in perfect legalese by the weekend. This is third Wednesday, will you and Kim be here?"

"Sorry," the green woman apologized, "Kim and I are currently in the sixth level of Dante's Inferno and will beg off."

Five minutes after the call ended Shego, having collected the pages from the fax room, dropped them on the desk of Armstrong, Bennett, Dashwood, and Zinski's top corporate lawyer.

Roger Hitchcock ('Fifth cousins,' he lied cheerfully when asked if a relationship existed.) wondered if Lipsky and Load could survive without him. It would be cheaper to hire in-house counsel, but the firm had litigators and researchers on staff. Corporate law would never earn him a partnership, but he brought in a good profit by handling the patents, copyrights, and intellectual property for Lipsky and Load. When litigation was required Shego represented L&L in the courtroom. Inventers and manufacturers needed protection. What would they do without him?

As Zita spoke to Shego the blinking message light on her phone caught her attention. Her PA should have handled it, everyone with her private number knew she had gone to Europe. All five messages were on the private line and said roughly the same thing, "Zee? This is Chuck. Your assistant ain't talking with me an' third Wednesday's comin' an' we ain't got the stuff."

Zita swore as loudly under her breath as it may be counted as swearing under your breath. She went out to the receptionist desk, "Lisa, could you get Colin? Emergency."

Lisa's efficiency created a certain level of lust on the part of Zita. She wanted the older woman for a personal assistant, but feared the chaos it would cause if she took her off the receptionist's desk.

"Got him," Lisa called fifteen seconds later.

"Colin? … Can you run out to Bollivar's Meats? … Sorry, my former assistant should have taken care of it. … You're a lifesaver."

Colin Grant, like Lisa, excited a certain amount of professional lust on the part of Zita. The young man seemed so clearly capable that she wondered why he didn't seek a larger role at Lipsky and Load – like that of her personal assistant. It certainly appeared he could manage the job, at times such as now he assumed the position in a de facto sense. But whenever she approached officially him on the subject he turned her down. Zita wondered if she was that much of a dragon lady that he feared working under her.

For Colin the issue was not working under Zita Flores. As a Global Justice agent his top priority was to insure Drakken stayed on his medications. Lipsky and Load handled important government contracts for a number of countries despite Drakken's criminal past and Wade's proven willingness to go into gray areas of the law. But they were the only firm capable of producing some of their discoveries and that made it vital to keep tabs on them.

Sometimes he felt guilty about his double role at the firm. He had been hired to help L&L and sometimes thought his divided loyalties kept him from performing his duties honestly. More often he rationalized his actions with the fact that what was best for Lipsky and Load and what was best for Global Justice coincided so neatly that giving his best for one meant he gave his best for the other.

Colin wondered how the place would get along without him. Another go-fer might perform his miscellaneous duties. But the Global Justice agent saw himself as the firm's moral compass. Lipsky and Load might change all human technology. The UN debated whether any private firm should be allowed control over the island project, but no one could name a company with a better chance of figuring out the alien technology. However, like any firm, L&L pursued the bottom line – Zita ruthlessly so and the four chief scientists with only a little less regard. During his last attempt to take over the world Drakken swore he had used mind control on the Possible twins, although Will Du suspected Jim of anti-social tendencies strong enough to make him a willing accomplice and Tim's friendship with Doc Drakken might have brought him on board. Colin subtly reminded them of their obligations to the world and all people. He and Joss, Colin felt like the young woman was always on the side of the angels. What would they do without him?

At nine twenty Zita's former personal assistant – although he didn't know that yet – arrived. She gave him ten minutes to clear his desk and get out before she called security. When he had to nerve to ask why Zita didn't bother to give him the full list, from arriving late on down. Failure to talk with Chuck was enough.

"But he's the damn janitor! Why should I listen to him?"

"Did you read page twelve of your job manual?"

"Uh, no."

"That's another reason to fire you."

Chuck had been the largest physically of Drakken's old henchmen, but probably the smallest mentally. Still, he had a fierce loyalty to the blue man and had developed an equally fervent attachment to Zita. He had also proven willing to be honest when the new job description called for it. He was part of the family. Perhaps the crazy uncle that was kept locked in the attic and never discussed in public, but family nonetheless.

Chuck wondered if the firm could survive without him. He doubted if anyone realized how much he did there. Zita and Drakken took the time to listen to him, and other workers knew and appreciated that fact. Too often Drakken lived in his own world, and Zita often saw nothing but the bottom line. But if workers had a problem they knew that the janitor possessed the power to get the ears of the real bosses. He didn't simply keep people from being buried under their own waste, he served as the link between labor and management. Joss knew that. While everyone else in the head office would give him time she sought him out, asked how things were going in the manufacturing arm of the company, and took a real interest in him. Joss realized what he gave to the firm and was his ally. Chuck took a lot of credit for keeping workers happy. He wondered what L&L would do without him.

Zita got on the phone to Jim Possible. Human Resources could hire tool-and-die men and workers for the manufacturing arm of the firm, but individuals capable of keeping up with the geniuses in the main lab were few and far between, and beyond the normal assessment abilities of HR. Jim technically headed HR, although his assistants handled most positions. Scientists and engineers for the lab or island faced Jim in the hiring process. Perhaps because of the proximity of the head office to the main lab finding a personal assistant for Zita came under his job duties also. She wondered if the parade of incompetents he sent her represented a perverse joke on his part, an excuse to talk with her, or her own standards being too high.

"I need a new personal assistant," she told him bluntly.

"You need to stop chewing them up and spitting them out so fast."

"You need to send me someone who can tell the difference between his ass and his elbow."

Jim rubbed the scars on his left hand. He needed to level with Zita at some point. She worked cheaply for a couple years at Lipsky and Load because she had been desperate for a job. She assumed responsibilities which weren't required and made herself an executive officer at the firm through hard work. Zita came with no proven skills and worked her way up. She now expected him to find someone with the high level of responsibility and talent she possessed for compensation that didn't match the demands. She maintained an almost excruciatingly tight budget. While she helped nurse the firm through some difficult spots early on she needed to recognize the firm's profitability and offer pay commensurate with the position if she wanted him to find a quality assistant.

Jim wondered how the firm could survive without him. Drakken had big ideas and flashes of almost inhuman inspiration – but lacked the attention span to finish anything. Wade lacked a practical turn of mind and was too happy with gadgets, and Tim was too compliant and would add features to a product forever at a client's request if left to himself. Jim and Joss knew how to complete a contract. He wondered what the firm would do without him.

Having given her orders to Jim, Zita got on the phone to Tim. The other twin had done early work on contracts, meeting with the clients and assessing their needs. "What in the bloody hell were you doing? You promised new features that weren't in the original plans to both the Dutch and the French!"

"I had to Zee. Bludstone and Grimm were out for the contracts too."

"Well it cuts into the profit margin!"

"Yeah, well how much profit would there have been if B&G got the contracts?"

Tim wondered how the firm could get along with out him. His work on sales presentation kept the business alive. Government procuring offices needed to talk with someone who knew what he or she was doing and didn't alienate the client. Drakken rambled like a madman, Wade tended to talk down to potential clients, and Jim's rudeness would have lost existing contracts. He and Joss could put it across. Joss had earned respect the hard way. A purchasing agent who patronizingly called her 'little lady' and told her to go home and let a real engineer answer his questions had ended up in the hospital after he took a swing at her after she slapped him. Shego pointed out to his lawyer that, quite disregarding the sexist comments that provoked Joss and would probably get him fired if his bosses heard how he had treated the L&L representative, the six foot three special forces vet would be a laughing stock when it got out that a five foot four woman had thrashed him soundly and emerged from the fight without a scratch. He wondered what the firm would do without him.

At five Zita left her office. Lisa had left earlier and less competent receptionists would deal with calls after hours. With business contacts all over the world Lipsky and Load needed the phone manned twenty-four seven. Mostly they took messages and promised the clients someone would get back to them, but they also knew how to identify a real emergency. It gave the firm a certain credibility that a help desk in Bangalore could not provide.

She pulled a sack out of the refrigerator in the front office break room and headed for the old kitchen in the former lair which remained at the center of the laboratory. Once in the old kitchen she pulled out two plastic containers of coleslaw she had purchased on her way in.

"Store bought coleslaw?" Jim moaned, "That crap is always too sweet."

"He means your home made is so wonderful," Tim said quickly.

Zita smiled at Tim, to Jim's disgust, "I know what he meant. But I didn't have time today. And did he make anything for the feast?"

Jim dropped the subject and helped Tim move the crock pot with baked beans to a table at the side of the room.

Drakken fussed over the beef ribs, pork ribs, sausage, and pulled pork. "How is the pork?" Drakken asked anxiously. "I didn't get the meat until late and had to raise the temperature more than I wanted to make sure it cooked thoroughly. Did it dry out?"

Jim piled pork on a slice of bread, poured on a little sauce, topped his sandwich with another slice of bread and took a big bite. "Perfect," he mumbled around the large mouthful of barbecued heaven. After he swallowed he addressed the blue man, "I want you to know whenever I hear the phrase 'pork butt' I think of you."

Drakken started to say thanks, then thought better of it and glared at Jim – who smiled in reply.

Tim took a bite from the beef rib in his hand, "Great stuff, what was the formula today?"

"Apple wood on the sausage and pulled pork, pecan on the beef ribs, and hickory on the pig."

"No mesquite chicken?" Zita asked.

"That will be for Joss when she gets back next month."

Chuck backed into the room holding an enormous cooler, he set it down and Tim took on the job of distribution. He tossed Coronas to Jim and Zita, strawberry soda to Colin and Drakken, called "Hey, Miller Man!" and underhanded a can to Chuck, then took an Amstel light for himself.

"Yo, Colin," Jim commented. "The barbecue sauce is wonderful. Maybe better than Wade's. We can fire him and keep you."

Colin laughed. "I may beat Wade on the sauce, but don't ask me to go into a lab. And you can thank my Momma for the sauce; she's been helping me tweak the recipe since Wade left."

"You've certainly got the sauce down," Zita agreed, as she wiped a bit from the corner of her mouth. Jim looked hungrily at a drop which had fallen onto her silk blouse and considered offering to lick it off.

"You need a real vacation," he told Zita, "you should come out to the island. No one can contact you. Just lay around on the beach with your own personal assistant to rub coconut tanning oil onto your body and serve you chilled drinks."

"You can't get me a personal assistant worth squat for the office, but you can find me one if I go to the island?" Zita complained.

"Well, since I've not found one you like here I was thinking maybe I could fill in on the rubbing lotion on you and giving you drinks with too much rum."

Zita turned to Tim, "Your brother is really hoping to get lucky."

Drakken softly grabbed Zita by the shoulder in feigned outrage, "You can't have her," he snarled. "I need her!"

Jim playfully grabbed her other shoulder and pulled her towards him, "She's mine!"

"No, mine!" Drakken said pulling her towards him.

Zita let the silliness continue for a minute then shook them off. It felt good to be home and back with 'family'. "Colin," she said returning to an earlier conversation, "are you sure you won't take the personal assistant job? It's more money than you're making now."

"Ah," he replied solemnly, "I don't work for the money. Take away my salary and I would still come out here for the joy of working with this crew."

"Here, here," Tim said and clinked his Amstel light bottle with Colin's strawberry soda.

"Business," Zita announced as the pace of chewing and swallowing slowed. "Chuck?"

As a former member of the security team Chuck brought in reports on security and maintenance. He also had to initial off on large purchase orders. While he wasn't bright he asked questions when he didn't understand things, which meant frequently. And the video camera filming the chair across from his desk tended to keep people honest in their requisitions.

"I think somebody's stealin' toilet paper from the men's room in the plant," he reported. "Should we put a camera in there?"

"Don't think privacy act would like that," Zita commented. "We don't have the lawyer here to ask."

"Even more to the point," Tim commented, "anybody want to monitor a camera in the men's toilet?"

Colin laughed, "Sounds like you need to live with that bit of pilfering."

Zita thanked Chuck and turned to Jim, "Shego said she couldn't be here this month - something about the sixth circle of somebody's Inferno. You have a clue?"

"Wade's parents gave up on Junior – said they were too old."

"Wade's folks aren't that old," Colin protested.

"They say Junior is aging them fast," Jim explained. "So they sent him over to stay with Kim and Shego. Individually either he or Jane is worse than both twins were at that age, and together they are exponential trouble."

"Exponential trouble?" Zita asked.

"Two of them aren't twice as bad," Tim explained. "They're four times as bad. Shego thinks they're the sixth level of hell in some poem by Dante – sinners will babysit Jane and Junior for all eternity."

Drakken raised a bottle, "To absent friends." Everyone clinked a bottle or can with those sitting next to them.

"Tim?"

Tim nodded, "We lost the security contract in Argentina to Bludstone and Grimm. I'm having a couple new guys reverse engineer their design and see if they're stealing ideas from us. Or maybe people just think that's a cooler name to see on equipment."

"We should tell people that Bludstone changed his name from Lipschitz. That'll cost them," Jim suggested.

"Really?" Chuck asked.

"There are rumors," Zita laughed. "But it's product quality that matters. Although I once suggested Doc change his name to 'Locke'. Jim?"

"Zee burned out another personal assistant," he told the gang. "Looks like the Germans want to get a spy on the island."

"Speaking of which," Zita mentioned, "Wade reports the Russian spy was a total washout."

"Third loser Russian," Tim mused. "Why are they so bad?"

"My theory is they look at the group think of the Stalin era as the good old days of Soviet technology," Jim suggested. "The Chinese claim Mao brought in a golden era – but they're too smart to really believe it and value initiative."

"Uh, if you don't mind," Colin asked, "What makes you so sure these guys are spies?"

"Spies are too clean," Jim explained. "Most scientists and engineers have something funny on their records."

"Well apparently this one didn't have as much science as he needed and you let him through," Zita complained.

"Hey, I'll bet his degrees were legit," Jim bristled defensively. "But the island requires people who can think outside the box and that's a lot harder to evaluate."

"You're right, sorry," Zita apologized.

"You can buy me a drink after work to make it up to me," Jim suggested.

"Moving along," Zita said dryly, "my trip to Europe went well. Shego hopefully would have reported Roger has started polishing the contracts."

As the meal wound down Drakken, Jim, and Tim began bouncing ideas off each other. Colin started to clean in the kitchen, keeping an ear cocked for anything of potential interest for Global Justice and wondering if his record had been scrubbed too well – although he couldn't think of any record he would have. Chuck fought a losing battle to look like he had a clue about the conversation going on around him and slowly worked on the last three pork ribs, and Zita listened carefully for ideas with marketing potential. It had been another good meeting.

"This is a great place… I wonder how the firm could survive without me?"

-The End-