artwork by Guweiz
Gladys Vandelay – The Protégé
By Rock Kitaro
Now there was once a certain senator who was known to frequent clubs and popular spots in Uptown Toronto. His name was Jared J. Chrysler, a despicable bully who had a penchant for strong-arming his proposals through city hall.
Sen. Chrysler was not a good man. Not a good man at all.
As it was, I knew Sen. Chrysler before I saw him. He was as corrupt as they come and thought himself untouchable. His dossier came replete with sexual assaults, everything from rape, torture, and murder. He was once caught on camera literally stripping the clothes off of a reporter in an elevator while he was high on coke.
Two years ago, his name dominated headlines after he declared in Parliament that women had no place in politics. He never apologized. Never chalked it up to a gaffe or a slip of the tongue. Instead, Chrysler had the gumption to stand by his words. And in spite of widespread protests, solidarity from the academia damn-near screaming for his resignation, this unsavory fellow managed to stay in office.
On top of all that, Chrysler had dealings with the Bratva. He aided in human trafficking and had the nerve to call for stricter immigration laws when one of his mistresses threatened to go public. Of course, this mistress hasn’t been seen for some time. Rumor has it she was pregnant with his child and as a result, her body was stuffed in a barrel down in the basement. Everyone knew he dabbled in narcotics and every so often, he’d had to get rid of his limos because no matter what they did they couldn’t get the stench of marijuana out of the seats.
That his execution didn’t come sooner, I think, emboldened his god-like complex. At the same time, it made him an easier target for those who weren’t bound by silly things like laws or ethics.
I think that’s why they chose me. “The first kill is always the hardest,” they say. But honestly, there was no fear. No trepidation. I wasn’t reluctant nor did I hesitate or have any second thoughts. I didn’t feel anything…other than the smooth friction of my knife sliding across his neck. I killed the man. But the ladies killed his legacy.
That’s the way we worked. A death shrouded in mystery would only inflate his infamy. We couldn’t have that. So his hotel room was staged to look like a break in. His business partner, just as corrupt as he, was our patsy. There were recordings of the partner hiring a hitman years ago. The coward called it off but we still had the tapes. Damning evidence, really.
You have to understand, I was never a full-fledged member of the Society. I wanted to be, more than anything. These ladies, these women. They’re extraordinary. Every single one of them has this overpowering presence by which you can’t help but wonder if they came fresh from leading entire legions on the battlefield. Perhaps by becoming one of them, I thought I could soak in but an ounce of their charisma, their strength.
I’m sorry. I suppose even now, I find it difficult to denigrate them. They trained me. They believed in me. But their price was too heavy. It was a price I couldn’t pay.
Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie”
In New York City some years ago, I was but a budding flower, having just graduated from Elysium with a 4.0 grade average and an avid interest in finance. Having grown up in the halls of Papa’s corporate offices, I was exposed to the high stakes of million dollar hedge fund investments. Despite all that, I was groomed to be a classical composer. That’s the path my parents chose for me.
My mother and our nannies came from Surrey, hence the accent I inherited. I began playing the piano when I was about five or six, and to date, I’ve mastered all of Chopin’s compositions. However, Erik Satie was my idol. It’s all about the timing in his works and the one thing I appreciated the most was the risk he took by trying something new and, dare I say, awkward. “Gymnopedie” is my favorite. I must have rehearsed it a thousand times. Even in complete silence, I hear it in my head.
To much is given, much is expected. That is, unless you have six big brothers and three older sisters, all more outgoing and impressive than yourself. It goes without saying, my own candle paled in comparison.
They dominated everything. Dinner conversations. Galas. Parties and pageants. At some point, I suppose I just got lost somewhere in the back and I didn’t mind. I had no talent for oratory and the moment all eyes were on me, I’d freeze up with the most terrifying heart palpitations.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my family. My brothers were so cool. Strong and handsome. And my sisters…Well, I suppose it’s a bit ironic now that I think about it. Clarice, Emily, and Victoria. My heart weeps even as I say this, but every time I was in the same room with them, I was afraid. They picked on me for being so short and small. I had bad asthma and they’d mock me relentlessly for the wheezing, the “overdramatic” desperation I’d exhibit to find my inhaler.
Papa made them take me everywhere and I could tell how much they resented it. It’s a horrid feeling, to have so much in common with expensive luggage that’s been passed down through generations. It’s because of Papa that they included me but I understood why. He didn’t want me to feel alone. Papa was always looking out for me. He was perhaps the one ray of light that kept me warm in an otherwise cold and abysmal childhood.
It was because of Papa that I had the strength to smile. When I was little, I used to stare at him like he was a Greek painting. The hope that most people have towards Christ is how I felt about him. Papa came to every one of my recitals. When everyone clapped and congratulated me, words couldn’t quite express how elated my father was. He’d cry. Such emotion. I felt the love. I didn’t have to wonder with him. I simply knew how much he loved me by how open he was about showing his affections. It was to his arms that I’d run. It was within his coat that I found salvation.
Felix Domina Vandelay II. That was his name, a titan on Wall Street with investments around the world. We were decedents of King Wilhelm Vandelay of Godland who surrendered the throne to the Swedish Empire. Our family was paid handsomely for throne and has since, dominated the shipping industry back before the English stole New York from the Dutch.
My father revered history and I took after him. My siblings didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but I did. Money was something everyone had, more or less, but our heritage, our pedigree, to come from royal blood was something my father regarded with pride. He installed our family crest in the corporate emblem. I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he took me to see it. Just me. No one else wanted to come.
And that’s how it went. The Vandelay name became synonymous with both opulence and, surprisingly enough, generosity. A lot of what I know about capitalism and economy came from what my father taught me. He’d let me sit in on the big important meetings, trusting with good measure that I’d behave and simply observe. And I did. It was interesting, actually. I enjoyed listening to them talk, more than I did watching cartoons or coloring in books. The tension, the frayed nerves, the adrenaline of risking so much on a public stock or new business, as CEO, Papa was the mediator to temper all tempers.
One time, Papa introduced me to the president of an airline company. It was just a joke, but Papa said I was his only daughter. I know this sounds bad but I fantasized about being his only child. I imagined a world without brothers or sisters or even my mother. Just Papa and me. I would have been so happy. It would have been the perfect world. But as it was, my brothers and sisters existed. In particular, Clarice, the eldest sister, born six years before myself.
Clarice was in a lot of ways the ring leader of the many cliques that tormented me from boarding school to boarding school. She could blame it on her youth, sure. But I never understood it. I heard stories about bullies being jealous of their targets or wanting something their victims had. But Clarice was taller, popular, drop-dead gorgeous and intelligent enough to know when to acquiesce. She never physically abused me. Just stole or broke everything that belonged exclusively to me. She called my recitals boring and sometimes, I could hear her laughing from the balconies as I played.
When the Society approached me, it was during a very dark chapter in my life. And yes, I blamed Clarice for it. My music teacher of eight years had just lost his wife to leukemia. I was his favorite pupil. I wanted to be there for him, to commiserate with him, to let him know that he wasn’t alone. But my family had a tradition of taking the yacht across the Mediterranean every Easter. I begged my mother to let me stay behind and support him but Clarice…She put it in my mother’s head that my teacher fancied me beyond what was appropriate.
We had just ported in Barcelona when I learned that my teacher committed suicide by plummeting from his twenty-fifth floor apartment. I was fifteen-years-old.
I was racked with grief. Even my father couldn’t console me. And he tried desperately. I wasn’t eating. I refused to attend school. And one afternoon, I returned home to find my bedroom nearly stacked to ceiling with rows of my favorite flowers, the white hydrangeas. It was classic of my father to go to such lengths. It was out of respect for him that I begrudgingly return to school.
By then, there was something different about me. Everyone could see it and finally, they all left me alone. I no longer smiled. I lost the ability to laugh or giggle. I stopped coming to Papa’s offices, and every time I entered a room where I knew Clarice was present, I’d keep my gaze to the floor.
I really hated that bitch. When I cried alone, it wasn’t because I was sad. It was the growing pain of holding back the rage in my heart. Every time I’d hear her laugh, or cheer, or so much as clear her wretched throat, I’d be so stricken by this incredible urge to stab her with the sharpest thing I could find. It was really bad and I knew something was wrong with me. But who could I tell? Who would possibly understand?
Three weeks after my maestro’s passing, I found myself sitting alone in an herbal teashop down in the Village. It rained that evening with a constant patter that calmed the disquieting notions. I’d hone in an out of the constellation of raindrops on the window. Red and yellow lights blurred in straight lines that zipped up and down the wet street.
Two older men approached and offered to buy me a drink. They appeared college students, and I knew they meant well, but I dismissed both.
Then, she sat down. A velvety black coat that still held beads from the rain. Long dark hair. Dazzling blue eyes with the elegance of a former ballerina, or a debutant like myself. Without saying anything, she just smiled and I was spellbound. She extended a napkin to wipe my tears. I still remember my mascara bleeding into the soft white cloth.
“May I help you?” I asked.
She sighed and looked around once more before settling on me.
“Your guilt is unwarranted. You are trapped, my dear. Like a bird, a caged canary. I am here to set you free.”
It was unreal. Everything I needed to hear came from those few words. She followed up with nothing else, but abruptly scooted her chair out and grazed past my shoulder and made her way to the exit. I exhaled, not realizing I had been holding my breath.
“Are you coming?”
I turned around. She was waiting for me, her and three others, all wearing the same dark velvety coat but with different styles of shoes and earrings. There was a motorcade of two black luxury SUVs parked on the curb behind them.
I didn’t get up at once. It was absurd and I think she saw it in my gaze.
“I can only unlock the cage. It’s up to you to spread your wings and fly.” She said.
“Who are you?” I asked in a shaky whisper.
“I’m Breanne. That’s Scarlett. She’s Mandee. And we call this one the Andalusian.”
Breanne, Scarlett, Mandee, and the Andalusian. These were the first Swords of St. Catherine I had the pleasure to meet. And if all of Swords were as impressive as they, with all due respect, there isn’t a force on earth powerful enough to match wits.
Officially, I ran away from New York City that night. Sadly, no one had noticed. Not even Papa, who was away on business.
I was absconded to a private estate in British Columbia, not far from Vancouver. It was the middle of April but the mountains were still capped with marshmallow snow. Bright lights glittered from lit torches and iron-wrought lamps. It was like a daydream. I had no idea what to expect. I barely knew Breanne or her associates. Even during the ten-hour flight, Breanne was reserved with her answers, countering my questions with “everything will be explained” and somehow, that didn’t bother me. It didn’t tickle my trepidation or rouse suspicion. She just watched me with such fascination, like a figure in a snow globe.
The villa was more or less a massive luxurious compound complete with two towers on both the east and west wings. Its driveway was lined with some of the most expensive cars I’d ever seen, even for me. There was a helicopter and a boat on the glassy lake out back. Everyone seemed busy, coming and going with a strong sense of purpose as if their individual tasks seemed so dire, so pertinent. And of course, it didn’t take me long to notice what the staff and visitors all had in common. They were all women. Young and old, but all of them, strong.
The interior was magnificent, sleek and modern. A tame fire burned within a long fireplace built into the wall. All the counters had sharp edges and everything was an accentuation of black or white surfaces. There weren’t many pictures. I didn’t see any symbolism or indication that would lead me to assume this was some kind of organization, just a lot of lamps, tables, and comfortable places to sit. Everything looked so clean and new.
I saw a group of women emerging from a hallway, all wearing white fencing uniforms, exasperated with sweat as they carried their rapiers down by their sides. I saw another group not much older than me assembling assault rifles in the living room as they watched live news on a giant flatscreen TV. They knew what they were doing. All of them wore varying styles of white collars shirts tucked into their black skirts or pants. And for the first time in a long time, I smiled.
“Have you ever fired a gun?”
I looked over my shoulder to see Breanne. Without her coat, she looked even more stunning than before. Her long black dress showed off an athletic physique with a golden pin clasped over her left shoulder. She was staring down at her smartphone and there was an assistant standing by. Scarlet, Mandee, and the Andalusian had left.
“No.” I answered.
That seemed to be her catchphrase for a while. The first thing she did, wasn’t to give me a tour of the facilities, it was to escort me to an elevator that took us deep underground. Even before the doors opened, I could hear the crackling pops that would eventually become music to my ears. The doors opened up to an extensive shooting gallery and a fully stocked armory containing every firearm ever created. I must have gawked with hooded eyes. She simply nodded and said, “come along.”
They were toys, an entire library of instruments and their accessories. Racks of shotguns, AR-15s, fully and semi-automatics, bolt-action rifles, Berettas, pistols, precision models, tactical and military grade hardware…I was salivating. Everything was black and bold. I could feel the texture of the grip without even touching it. I could smell the oil as my eyes scanned an assortment. It was amazing. I was star struck.
For some reason I was drawn to the Sig Sauer P238. It was one of the smaller, compact pistols at the end of a wide range of handguns. I was just about to slide my fingers over the handle when suddenly someone startled me with, “I wouldn’t.”
I looked over my shoulders. It was the Andalusian, watching me with an amused smirk.
“Actually, could you? Something’s come up.” Breanne asked her.
“Of course,” the Andalusian nodded.
“We’ll see you at dinner.” Breanne told me before hurrying off with her assistant.
“Try the Gen4 Glock 19. The Sig Sauer only holds six rounds. You’ll want something with less recoil since you have small hands. The nineteen is perfect.”
Taking the Andalusian’s advice, I picked it up. It was my first time I ever held a gun. After walking to an open lane, she inserted the gun with a magazine of 9mm rounds. A paper sheet of a human silhouette was wheeled back to twenty-five yards.
“Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Mind the muzzle. When you’re ready, turn the safety off and square up your sights. You’ll feel a force popping the gun back as you fire. That’s your recoil but it shouldn’t be too bad. Fire once, and relax. Breathe before you pull the trigger again.”
The Andalusian was nurturing in her tone. In that moment, she might have said more to me than Breanne did in the time that I knew her. The Andalusian handed me a set of earmuffs and encouraged me to wear these yellow protective glasses. Then, she simply extended her hand, encouraging me to try it before she took a couple of steps back.
In that first shot…the discharge was a release in so many ways. And much to my own surprise, I hit the target in the dead center of its chest. Right on the “x”. I gasped in shock. I looked back and the Andalusian was smiling with pride. I wished Papa was there to see it. She encouraged me to fire again. So I did. Over and over again until all fifteen rounds were expelled. Of the fifteen shots, I hit the “x” three more times but the groupings showed I wasn’t far off with the others.
“Not bad. You got an eye for accuracy. But whatever. We’ll see how you do on the obstacle course.”
“You have an obstacle course?!”
“Mm-hmm. Scarlet holds the record but that’s only because I stopped timing my passes.”
I chuckled, “I’m assuming, by passes, you mean your attempt at it?”
She removed the gun from my jittery hands and returned it to the rack. I followed.
“Why do they call you the Andalusian?”
“Call me Anna. My name is Anna Marie.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
It was Anna who gave me a tour of the facilities. They had an indoor pool, a massage parlor, a state of the art communications room, and a computer lab set up to look like the inside of a corporate office. The top floors had hallways like a hotel. This was where the suites were. There was a commons area on the third floor where a group of women were discussing current events with martinis in mature sophistication.
A fully staffed kitchen worked diligently to prepare dinner. I noticed the roof and several balconies had sentry guards, gorgeous women with long hair and scoped rifles scanning for activity. We were out on the 2nd floor terrace overlooking the lake when I finally asked what I should have asked in the first place.
“What is this place?”
“Better question, why’d you come?” Anna quickly countered.
At that age, I wasn’t prone to self-reflection. Anna’s question had me taken aback.
“It’s okay. Sorry.” She said. “I don’t mean to pry. You just don’t strike me as…well. It’s just strange.”
“Why are you here?” I asked her.
She took a moment and said, “Because I believe in what we’re doing. I’m willing to sacrifice everything to accomplish our mission. It’s not just for myself. It’s for women of all races, creed, and class. Once, there was this woman who was raped by a football star. She reported it to the police, but they were reluctant to press charges. The league had an army of lawyers on retainer who destroyed the woman’s reputation and painted her out to be some kind of gold-digger. On top of that, the football player was married. His wife threatened to file a defamation suit against the woman if she went public.”
“Then, we stepped in. We obtained a copy of him knocking out his wife in the lobby of casino. We had it played everywhere. I’m sure you’ve seen it. He lost his job, his career, and two years ago he was convicted of first-degree battery. While in prison he was killed during a fight. The killer was one of our pawns.”
I can’t imagine the horror that was painted across my face when she told me that story. Again, I was compelled to ask, “what is this place?”
A loud melody reverberated around the estate. Anna took in a deep breath from the frosty cold air and suddenly smiled with this twinkle of optimism in her brown eyes. Rubbing my shoulders, she said that I was about hear all the answers to my question.
It was in the dinning room. A massive hall with a long black-stone table positioned over a white almost fur-like rug. There were sixty seats, sixty plates, sixty settings. The hanging lights were cool and difficult to describe. They looked like chandeliers from the bottom, but from the top half they looked like domes made of crystals. It cast reflective shards on the walls just above the window line.
After washing my hands and primping myself with Anna, we entered the dining room together. Almost immediately wave of anxiety rushed over me. Breanne was at the head of the table with the sharp-eyed Scarlet to her right. Everyone else was a new face, all beautiful, unique, and intriguing. They saw me but no one said hello. They just smiled politely and engaged in their own conversations. We found a pair of seats just five away from Breanne and I was prompted to nod at her as I sat. Her blue eyes shined like diamonds. It’s hard to hard to pull away from them.
Before too long, before the food and beverages were brought in, Breanne rose to a stand. At once, all conversations ceased. I listened, intently.
“Thank you all for being here. I know many of you have waited days, some of you weeks since I last brought you to the comfort of our lovely Château de Cliff. But at last, the time has come for formal introductions. First and foremost, it is incumbent upon me to make it clear that you are not one of us. Not yet. We will train you. Mold you. Instill in you the capability to call yourself a sword and if you are ready and prove yourselves capable, then we will draw you from your sheaths. It is then that you will have the eternal honor to call yourself a Sword. We are the Swords of St. Catherine. Plainly put. We are the ones who make the world go round.”
Immediately seven women of the sixty stood up and placed their right hands over their hearts, extending two fingers to touch the left edge of their clavicle. I and a few others thought were all supposed to stand as well, but Anna put a hand on my shoulder to thrust back me down.
The seven women, who included Anna, Mandee and Scarlet, recited an affirmation in unison with Breanne. “The wheel will never be broken. We till the earth. We grow the seeds. We’ve come to collect on all man’s deeds. To the martyr. Till the end.” They said.
“I am Breanne Cunningham. I am the head this estate and in a sense, your benefactor, your sponsor. I am responsible for everything you do from here on out. If after our training you prove yourselves to be more than dainty flowers with pretty little faces, you will become one of us in a private ceremony held in her presence. Those of you who fail to make the cut will be released and set free to live your lives as you see fit. But know this. We will watch you. You will be scrutinized and followed till we are satisfied that you are no longer a threat.
“You have an opportunity here to become something greater than anything you’ve ever seen in the movies or on TV. This isn’t a fairy tale. We are not here to have fun. At present, know that you are Protégés of the Swords of St. Catherine. Once you become full-fledged members, you will henceforth be known as Swords. Our mission, our goals, our history, what we intend to accomplish, none of this information will be made privy to you until you’ve become full-fledged Swords. Understand?”
Perhaps, seeing I did not, Breanne clarified.
“We are a secret paramilitary organization. We intend to keep it a secret. If you are here, it’s because we are choosing to trust you with what little information I’ve just provided. If you betray us, if you utter any of this to anyone outside of our Society, we will kill you. I’m not joking. This isn’t a bluff. As sure as we have brought you here, we will take you out. Having said this. If anyone thinks they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and would like to make your leave, go now.”
Six girls stood up. I could tell they were scared. So was I. They were escorted from the dining room. Their chairs and table settings were taken away. I should have left right then and there, but I didn’t. It was all too intriguing. And there was something about the way Breanne looked at me. It’s as if she could sense a potential, a potential I was blind to myself.
And so I stayed. I became a protégé. We didn’t sign some contract or take a blood oath. We gave them our word and that was enough. Before that night, before I made that commitment, I honestly felt so alone. But after that night, I had a squadron of Amazon warriors at my beck and call. After that night, I was fearless.
The following morning, I flew back to New York. I still had to attend school and maintain appearances. But it was different. I was different. The private school I once fretted, now seemed so juvenile and beneath me. I was no longer bothered by Clarice’s irritating laughter or the feeling of being discarded by the rest of my siblings. They had their country clubs, their shopping sprees, and fashion weeks. I had my secret. And of course I had Papa.
I couldn’t wait to see him. I was bursting to tell him of my adventures, having fired a gun, and meeting this extraordinary group of women. But I didn’t. I kept my word. All I could tell him was that there was a six-week program for aspiring musicians in Seattle. I asked if I could attend over the summer and, simply relieved to see me smiling again, Papa said yes.
That summer was the most brutally intense period of my life. I wasn’t exactly the active, outdoorsy type. Even after I fired a gun for the first time, I could still feel the rattling in my hands for days. The training was ridiculous. I was the youngest, the smallest in my class of protégés, but was still expected to keep up with the rest of them.
We trained on the grounds of Chateau de Cliff under a strict diet of steamed chicken breast, select vegetables, and a blended variety of protein shakes and cleansers. I had to wear a vest that weighed forty pounds as I ran through the forests around Whistler Mountain.
My asthma made it difficult to breathe and I passed out on the first day. No one came and got me. I woke up in the middle of the night, lost and alone. When I got back to the chateau, they immediately threw me into the pool and made me swim in increments of twenty minutes. When I could no longer lift my arms, two women carried me from the pool to the showers. They washed me with care and provided a clean robe.
From there, I was escorted to the theater where a group of protégés were watching a marathon of the most violently choreographed movies I’d ever seen. The chairs were recliners. We plopped our throbbing, sore bodies down in these seats and rehydrated with cold bottles of water. I was too tired to notice at first, but the movie was playing at a low volume. I wouldn’t find out till later but this was a technique to implant instincts in us. We watched everything from kung-fu flicks to explosive Hollywood hits. The plots were useless. It was the action, we soaked in. We fell asleep to it. Then, we’d wake up and repeat. We did this everyday for the first week and thankfully, I was able to finish the mountain trail by my third outing.
The second week, Crossfit trainers were brought in. These women were sculpted goddesses. They could run, lift, climb, and throw better than any man I’d ever seen. They instilled in us the mentality that as long as we applied ourselves, as long as we were determined, nothing was impossible.
They taught us how to do deadlifts, the proper way to perform squats and pull-ups. I was actually good with the pull-ups and the ring-dips. I could climb the rope faster than anyone else. I couldn’t believe it. Of course the kettle bells were a problem. So were the medicine balls and the box jumps. But still. We started out light and worked our way up. The fact that we were all women, enduring the same hell, I think it brought us closer together as comrades.
After the Crossfit training, we were still expected to run with the heavy vests and swim every day. All of it was to build our endurance and stamina, to teach us how to commit and follow through with each exercise, preparing us to follow through with each mission.
On Friday during the second week, as I bonded with the other protégés around a campfire in the woods, I learned about their inspirations. Some of them had some pretty harrowing tales of sexual abuse, discrimination, and defamation. Some even experienced the death of someone close. It was clear that they absolutely hated men and used their fury to get through some of the workouts.
When they asked me what was my driving factor, I was kind of embarrassed to tell them. I could have mentioned Clarice and how she accused my favorite teacher of sexually harassing me. I could have mentioned that my teacher committed suicide or that I never got any respect from my peers. But compared to the others, I didn’t have some superhero type revenge story compelling me to push myself harder.
“Its just rage. It’s this burning rage that I have deep inside. I’m sorry. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
“Rage…” a girl doubted. “No way. You barely raise your voice. I’ve never seen you get angry about anything. Haha! You’re way too polite. What do you know about rage?”
“I know a thing or two.” Came an outside voice.
Scarlet paid us an unexpected visit. She came from the bushes and immediately everyone stood up to salute. It was strange for her to be out in the woods while she was dressed in formal business attire with that inverted bob cut and her heavy red eye shadow. Every time I saw Scarlet it sent shivers down my spine. She wasn’t that much taller than me but I knew she was dangerous. Even as she approached, stepping in the dirt with those thousand dollar heels, she was twirling a switchblade with this malicious grin like there was something seriously messed up in her head.
“Em-hmm. And what the fuck are you doin?” said an approaching voice.
Scarlet groaned as turned and saw that she was followed. It was another Sword, my first time seeing this one. Her name was Celeste. She was one of the few African-Americans I saw in the society and perhaps the only one other than Anna and Breanne who didn’t seem afraid of Scarlet.
“Why don’t you go back inside!” Scarlet shouted. “Hovering over my shoulder is only gonna get on my fuckin’ nerves.”
“Leave em alone, Scarlet. We’re all friends here.” Celeste said, almost amused.
Scarlet smirked, “Well this one here claims she has rage. I want to help.”
Celeste looked me up and down. She said we were friends but I didn’t that impression.
“Aren’t you the one who got lost her first day out?”
“In the middle of the night, I found my way back. Alone.” I pointed out.
Celeste grinned at me. “Everyone has rage, sweetheart.”
“Everyone breathes too,” Scarlet pointed out. “But I have weak lungs so I don’t breathe as well as the rest of you bitches. The same goes with rage. Just because everyone has it, doesn’t mean everyone feels it the same way. Some have it more than others. Isn’t that right, bright eyes?”
I nodded, surprise that Scarlet understood.
Celeste shrugged. “Very well. If she says she has rage, she has rage. Let’s go, Scarlet. You can traumatize them later.”
Scarlet retracted her switchblade and tossed it in my hands. “A gift. A friend to a friend. Do your best, ladies!”
Once they were gone, we all shuttered with relief. I couldn’t figure out the dynamics. Were we friends? I studied the switchblade and felt honored. There’s nothing wrong with having the scariest person in the house on your side. Or so I thought.
In the third week, we still kept up with the Crossfit, but before we ran the mountain, we were introduced to hand-to-hand combat for the first time. We were given the option to choose a style of martial arts. We’d eventually have to learn more, but our first was to be considered our principle, our specialty by which we had to master above all others.
Initially, I chose boxing. Because honestly, I thought it would be the easiest to absorb and take in. But Anna showed up that afternoon. She was dressed in a two-piece fitness suit that put the rest of us to shame. She really was built like a magnificent Andalusian horse in so many ways. I could tell she was strong and fast, with legs that could bend steel.
“You can do boxing. But I want you to learn tai chi.” She told me.
I was appalled. There wasn’t a Tai Chi master present so I had to run the mountain until the master’s flight arrived two days later. Her name was Wing Qiu. I called her Sifu. At first, I wasn’t sure if Anna was trying to give me break or insult me by assigning Tai Chi. Because the first day of practice was relatively easy. It was a lot of stretches and breathing techniques. Just what my body needed. But by the forth day, we started these wrist-to-hand exercises called chi-sau drills. From there, the intensity burned.
By the fourth week of summer, I was worn out and exhausted but saw immediate results when I looked in the mirror. I was never fat or terribly skinny. But suddenly I had biceps. I could see a six-pack coming through. My quads were thicker. My calves were rock solid. I felt…Yeah, I felt sexy.
The entire summer consisted of strengthening the body. By the time I had to return home from school, I was conditioned and memorized a lot of the exercises so I could practice on my own.
I was also given a list of titles to read as homework. On my sixteenth birthday, I cracked open a collection of Emma Goldman’s essays about anarchy. I also pored through Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and who could forget Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues”.
It very much was an enlightening period in my life. I stopped going to my father’s offices and rebelled against my family in their traditional excursions around the world. Every time they left me at home alone, I’d abscond to Chateau de Cliff. I’d continue my training and asked for more books to read. I was becoming more of a regular, more so than all the other protégés. I wasn’t trying to garner favor. There was simply no place else I’d rather be.
On Christmas Day, Papa was stranded by a blizzard ravaging Chicago. The idea of spending my favorite holiday with the rest of my family was utterly dreadful, so again, I embarked to the sanctuary by which they dared not follow.
Chateau de Cliff was practically empty when I arrived with most of the staff allowed time off. I remember walking down one of the long 3rd floor hallways with the high ceilings when I heard someone sobbing. I stopped in place and focused to pinpoint which bedroom it was coming from. It was Anna’s.
Ever so cautiously, I turned on the handle and cracked open the door. “Oh my god,” I whispered. I’ve never seen her so vulnerable, so distraught. Anna Marie was always the charismatic ignition that lit a fire in the rest of us. I was compelled to enter.
Her room was much larger than my own. It had its own fireplace and an entire wall made of glass that would have provided a breathtaking view of the mountains. I said it would have been, if not for the fact that Anna had the drapes completely pulled over so that the afternoon appeared as night.
In my white gown I tiptoed to the love seat slantedly facing the fireplace and the queen size bed. Anna was curled on the floor with her back against that uncomfortable corner made her bed and the nightstand. A half-empty bottle of rosé was by her side as she stared daggers into the wine glass held up by the careless grip of her fingertips, the elbow of which was gradually drifting off the nightstand.
“Anna, What’s wrong?” I asked softly.
Even from twelve paces, I could see the fire dancing in her eyes. She shook her head and told me, “Please, just go.”
“I can’t do that. I see you’re in pain. How can I enjoy this Christmas when one I truly admire…Please. Let me help you. I promise it’ll stay between us. I promise.”
She said nothing for nearly five minutes. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. I was so nervous just being alone in the room with her that I pulled my legs into the seat and nestled my face into my knees. She was my superior and even though I’d only seen but a glimpse of her potential in the field, it was enough to know Anna’s smile belied a fearsome aggression she retained so well.
Up till this point, I honestly didn’t know much about her. I revealed a lot about my own upbringing when she was supervising us in training, but I remember walking away from those conversations as if I’d just finished talking to myself. She never shared anything in return and the only way I knew she was listening was when she’d reply with, “dang” or “that’s messed up.”
Now, there I was, with dwindling hopes of getting a word out of her. I glanced at the door with second thoughts when suddenly she said, “If you tell anyone. I’ll never forgive you.”
“I swear it! On pain of death, it’ll never leave my lips.”
In the depths of her unwavering stare, it began to feel as if the entire room was shaking. I could tell she had every intention of holding me to my word.
She began with, “Memories. I’m beginning to think that’s the reason why no one truly ever wants to live forever. No sane person, I mean. I can’t get the memories of him out of my head. He haunts me with his smile. He haunts me with his laughter. He haunts me with his love. He was the only one who ever knew the real me and I killed him. There was something in his eyes when I shot him. It’s like he was speaking to me through that look but for the life of me, I can’t figure out the fuck what he was trying to say. Asshole!”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“Just a man.”
“What was his name?”
“I’d like to know.”
Anna finished her wine glass and set it on the nightstand with a hard knock. She stared at the glass in a half-drunken stupor, the pink wine gradually pooling at the bottom. The lamp’s golden glow washed over the right side of her face as her head tilted and her eyes gravitated towards the light.
“Angel,” she said. “Marcus Angel. My Angel… Breanne, Celeste, the others. Even you. Everyone knows a side of me, the side I allow you to see, the only side I want you to see. But Marcus, he saw through all the bullshit, the games, the tricks, the lies. He knew I was a monster but he loved me anyway.”
“You think you’re a monster? Anna, why do you think you’re a monster?”
She scoffed, shaking her head. “We’re all monsters, Gladys. All of us.”
“No, we’re not! I believe you do yourself a disservice with such degradation. I don’t like that. The fact that you think so low of yourself shows that you’re not all bad. It shows that you’re humble. The real monsters would never give in to self-reflection. Real monsters don’t cry. Perhaps your man saw you cry. Perhaps that’s why he believed, as I do, that there’s more to you than meets the eye. And considering you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met, that’s saying something.”
“You think I’m amazing?” she said as if it was an absurd thought.
“Yes! Do you not? You said you don’t time your passes on the obstacle course, but you did in the beginning. I saw ‘em. I saw the tapes of you in the combat trials. You took out five Marines using what looked like some form of kickboxing.”
“Krav maga! That’s amazing, Anna! Truly, it is! I know we’ll have to start sparring with the other Swords sooner or later, but out of all of them, you’re the one I fear the most.”
Anna sighed as she pulled herself up by the nightstand and straightened out her blouse. “When you grow up, learn to read between the lines. We’ll talk again.”
“That’s not fair.” I glowered. “I may be only sixteen but you have no idea what I’ve been through. I understand completely.”
“Well clearly you don’t understand words. Because completely implies there’s nothing else to understand. You haven’t even asked why I killed him. Don’t you think that’s important to know?”
Somewhat insulted, I sucked on my teeth and promptly stood up to head for the door when I heard her say, “Wait. I’m sorry.”
She smirked. And in that smirk, Anna closed her eyes and dropped her chin as if getting me to understand was hopeless.
“I didn’t ask for your help, Gladys, but I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Listen, I don’t want to insult you by assuming what you do and don’t know. On the same token, you should know it’s infuriating when people assume they know you based on what little breadcrumbs you’ve given them.”
“Forget it. It’s all good. Scarlet said something about rage? I can see it. You should be careful with that.”
“Or else what, I wonder.” I teased.
“You’ll turn into Scarlet.”
“Oh dear. Well, we can’t have that can we?”
“Let’s go.” She said as she brushed past my shoulder.
We went down to the armory and grabbed a couple of laser-sighted MP-15s. The tactical course was an abandoned mining town from the 1870s that was once settled by prospectors from a gold rush. Bundled in our white coats and visors, we jogged north across the mountain pass to get there. Everything was covered in ice and daylight dimmed. But with a cheerful smile, Anna flipped a switch to turn on the floodlights and activate the timed targets.
In below freezing conditions, she and I combed through the mining town, building by building, from the saloons to cabins, as ballistic targets emerged in random intervals at random locations. It was an exhilarating shooting gallery, assessing threats, taking down stationary targets, and fending off ambushes from drones while avoiding paintball attacks from random sentry guns that popped out of nowhere.
I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. I remember jumping through a saloon window when I saw a sentry gun with glass shards getting stuck in my hair and under my collar. I got hit three times in my ass, rubber pellets that felt like I was getting whipped by a scorching hot poker. Anna was keeling over with laughter as I struggled to pick myself up. My thighs were cramping and I kept slipping in the snow. It was ridiculous. It was hilarious. It was fun.
Anna had it ten times worse, being that I was smaller and quicker. I remember seeing her roll across the table. And she thought she was about to roll off and hit the floor for cover, but she rolled directly into a flat wall because the table was part of a booth. She was riddled with paintball pellets. Seeing her squirm while spitting with laughter was a sight to behold.
We limped back to the villa around a quarter till nine. Our undergarments were drenched with sweat. Our white coats, spotted as if we crashed through a rainbow, and my rifle was broken on the account of my swinging it at a mounted torrent like an ax.
We sat by the fireplace of the golden library that night, watching reruns of “Home Alone” and drinking from mugs of hot cocoa and marshmallows. Her idea, not mine.
“Anna, how long do we have to be protégés before we become official Swords?”
She raised her brows. I knew it was sudden, but the question within had lingered for some time. Lowering the volume, she turned to me with her arm over the headrest.
“What’s the rush?” She asked.
I nestled further into my blanket and batted my lashes. “Well…I’d be devastated if I wasn’t accepted. Meeting all of you and coming here was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I never want to leave.”
Her lips were slurping from the mug. I couldn’t tell from her grin whether she was taking me seriously.
“Gladys, have you ever killed anyone? Scratch that. I know you haven’t. But have you ever thought about it? Like, if put in the position and given an assignment, do you think you’d be able to do it? To bring yourself to end the life of another human being?”
“Absolutely.” I said without a doubt in my mind. That was the honest truth. I couldn’t explain why I was so certain…or eager for that matter. But I wasn’t blind to the fact that every Sword in the Society was a bonafide killer. And so badly, I wanted to join their ranks.
“Why?!” she questioned.
“Because some people need to die.”
“Gladys, please tell me you’re just saying that.”
“No. I mean it.”
“And you feel you’re best qualified to determine who and when?”
“Absolutely.” I told her.
Anna just stared at me.
“Gladys, that’s evil. Honestly, who do you think you are?”
It was more than just a question. There were hidden implications, a veiled accusation and it scathed in my chest. I didn’t know what to say and it frustrated me immensely. I began to ponder if I meant what I said. More importantly, for the first time in my life I really did start to wonder, “Who do I think I am?”
“It’s okay, Gladys. I don’t mean to judge. And please don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s a lot that you just don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. In fact, it was Marcus who had the balls to encourage me to do the same. There’s a lot I don’t understand. The world is so huge, there’s so much, so many philosophies, customs, cultures, ethics, art, beauty. We are but two in a world filled with billions. Being a part of the Society is a commitment. You’ll have to do things you might not agree with. You’ll have to make sacrifices that’ll test that commitment. Don’t be so eager to jump in headfirst if you don’t even know what you’re jumping into.”
“Whatever it takes.” I said in a shaky whisper. “This is what I want.”
“Why?” She whispered sharply. “You don’t even know what the hell this is. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“You don’t think I’ll be able to handle it.”
“No. That’s what you’re saying. Isn’t it? I’m the best shot in my class. I can carry more than twice my own weight and I’ve only failed to complete a training course but once! I’ve read all the books they’ve given me. I’ve done everything they asked! So what don’t you think I’ll be able handle? Please! Just tell me.”
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I have a mission coming up. It’s an official one. This scumbag senator from Toronto. Now this is a man in some serious need of killing. I’ll talk to Breanne and ask to bring you along. You can play the piano at his fund-raiser.”
I gasped so loud. I remember propping up on my knees like a puppy ready to go for a walk. Anna chuckled, “If she agrees to bring you, I’ll insist that you’re the one who kills him. From there, it’ll be up to you. If you succeed, you’ll increase your chances of becoming one of us. You chicken out, it’s game over. You’ll only get one shot. We don’t tolerate failure.”
“I’m not worried. I’ll do it.”
I did do it. At an elegant hotel in downtown Toronto. My fingers were numb from playing a number of Mozart’s sonatas, but when Chrysler requested a private audience with me, a sixteen-year-old who could easily pass for a twelve-year-old, my resolve was cemented in stone. His intentions were clear and if I had gotten caught and had to spend the rest of my life in prison for having killed that odious creature, it would have been worth it to spare others.
Alone in his suite, I remember sitting on his lap as he told me some story about his childhood. He kept scrubbing his thick mustache against my cheek. His breath was a like a burning exhaust of scotch that made my stomach curl into knots. And when I could take no more, I got up and casually walked around to the back of the couch, keeping my fingertips on the shoulders of his coat. Then, like a python my arms coiled around his forehead. I leaned him back to expose his neck and swiftly slashed a hidden dagger across his throat. I didn’t feel a thing, other than the satisfaction of a world’s worth of angst released with the blood spraying from his gash.
My first assassination. So easy it was scary.
Spring Break marked the end of my first year in training with the Society. Of the fifty from my class, only six of us remained. Most of the class performed poorly in the tactical course. They struggled to master their assigned form of martial arts through an obvious lack of commitment. But the nail in the coffin were the combat trials. We had to spar with official Swords, which included Scarlet, Celeste, Mandee, and even Anna.
There wasn’t a single day where they took it easy on us. They were ruthless. We were given the option to double-team or employ some ambush tactic like using decoys while someone attacked from the rear. But every day we lost. To call it traumatic was putting it lightly. We were allowed to wear face guards to avoid having to explain black-eyes and busted lips to friends and family. But I’ve had my elbow dislocated. Massive welts found places on my back and thighs. And for two days, I urinated blood after receiving a heel kick from Anna directly to my kidneys.
Those combat trials had girls falling like flies. They’d go home and never come back. It’s was insanity, really. In order to pass the combat trials, one had to survive an entire minute of full contact sparring one-on-one with a Sword. It took me three months before I chose none other than Celeste.
I won’t lie. I didn’t think I could last fifteen seconds against Anna and I saw how Scarlet deliberately tried to inflict permanent injury on her opponents. Celeste was just as tough and fearsome as anyone else, but I also gathered that she was more of a talker than a brawler. And as any fighter would say, “thinking” is the biggest enemy in a fight.
Celeste was master to an Indonesian style of martial arts called Silat. She had the immaculate body of a track and field sprinter. And even before we started, her hazel eyes conveyed that she felt sorry for me. I’m sure she saw the fury in my own blue eyes but it didn’t faze her the slightest.
Using tai chi, I engaged her. It was tough. Tai Chi employs the stratagem of using an opponent’s momentum, their own moves against them. But Celeste’s attacks were short and powerful. There was hardly a time where she fully extended any of her limbs that I could latch onto. Uppercuts to other ribs, spinning elbows to the face, and heel kicks to the midsection came in quick successions.
My only option was stay small. In a wide-legged stance, I moved in with palm thrusts to her chest, chops to her neck, and strikes to the back of her knee. Out of the two dozen attempts, I probably landed three or four blows. Nevertheless, I lasted the full minute without dropping to my knees.
When the bell rang, I received an applause from the thirty in attendance. It was cool to see Anna smiling so proudly. I wished Papa was there. Because God knows I was scared out of my mind. But the anger overpowered fear and I simply plunged ahead. Celeste shook my hand and even Scarlet gave me a reluctant nod.
At last, the combat trials were over. I’d still occasionally spar with them but not as aggressively as with the trials. I even took up boxing, which was what I wanted in the first place. And while I thought my initiation was nearly complete, I’d soon discover the worse had yet to come.
Upon graduating high school, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Papa about where I wanted to attend college. It was one of the most difficult conversations I ever had. Here, he expressed how disappointed he’d been since I’ve stopped coming on family trips. He said he understood that my being a teenager meant giving me space and letting me grow, but he truly missed me. So when I told him that I wanted to study abroad, it moved him to tears.
It broke my heart to grieve him so. But I had to go. To soften the blow, I revealed that I wanted to enroll in the London School of Economics. That perhaps one day I’d follow in his footsteps as a savant in finance. He promised the door was always opened and that the boardroom chair by his side would always have my name on it. With a tearful goodbye, I embraced him and walked away. Father…
My training in British Columbia was only the beginning.
The real trials lay waiting in the Middle East.
…The Perennial War of Paramours…