Authors: Kirsten Miller
Tags: #General Fiction
“You’re right, of course,” Mandel concedes. “You no longer are. But you must understand, there is absolutely no cause for embarrassment. That’s one of the reasons we have this exercise. So that no one wastes his or her time on useless emotions like shame. You slept with men for money. You’re hardly the first student here who has done so. What makes you special, Felix, is how successful you were. Your charm, that handsome face. People line up to give you whatever you want. That’s a real gift. The Mandel Academy can teach you how to make the most of it. All we ask is that you set your sights on something a bit higher than a closet full of flashy clothing.”
Felix nods with enthusiasm. He’s bought every ounce of Mandel’s bullshit. I bet he doesn’t make it to the end of the semester.
“Ivan,” Mandel says. The guy grunts in response. “You are a very impressive specimen.” I can feel my head jerk back with surprise. He’s got to be kidding. “Your father was a remarkable man as well. The Butcher of Brighton Beach. He taught you everything he knew about the protection game. I’m not sure how much of it managed to sink in, but I do know that you became one of his enforcers two years ago at age fifteen. How many people have you disposed of since then, may I ask?”
Nine? If that’s true, the guy’s a serial killer.
Mandel addresses the rest of us. “If we hadn’t found him, Ivan would have become a ward of the state. His parents are now serving life sentences, and his uncles and aunts refused to take him in.”
“I will thank them soon,” Ivan says. I detect a slight accent, but there’s no hint of emotion in his voice.
“You should,” Mandel agrees as though he missed the kid’s meaning. “They did you a very big favor.”
Mandel finally turns to me, and his smile broadens.
“Last, but not least, we have Flick. Flick is academically gifted. A master thief. And a champion boxer. I won’t bother listing his many other talents and achievements. But he too has known tragedy. The state of his face should tell you as much. However, unlike the rest of you, he isn’t here as a last resort. Flick is our only volunteer this semester. In time, you will realize just how meaningful that is. His personality profile tells us he’s a born leader. His physical exam revealed he’s in peak condition. We expect great things from Flick. He could be what we call a natural.”
Mandel holds his arms out, as if to wrap us all in a great big hug, and I realize that’s it. He’s let my skeletons stay in their closets. But my relief is followed by a terrible thought that spins me around in my seat. Whose secrets was Mandel protecting? Mine—or my father’s? Could my dad be one of the people watching us from the catwalk? I turn back and scour Mandel’s face for answers. He isn’t giving any away.
“So there you have it,” he says. “Welcome again to the Mandel Academy. Spend the next three weeks getting acclimated to your new home. You’ll learn a few fundamental skills and be groomed to take your place among the student body.” He checks his watch. “It’s one o’clock now. Go grab some lunch. This afternoon you’ll be taking another important step toward assuming your new identity. And remember—if you have any questions or concerns, you can always come to me.”
I raise my hand, but he pretends not to see it. Next time, I swear to myself, I won’t bother being polite.
• • •
I’m dying for a change of atmosphere, but the cafeteria doesn’t actually have any. What it does have is another stretch of glass- enclosed catwalk hanging high above our heads. The catwalk glass is clear. There are no spectators inside. But there will be. Every room in the Incubation Suites must be designed to administer some sort of test. We’re just lab rats being ushered from one cage to the next. They’ve kept the rooms featureless because they’re controlling the variables. They wouldn’t want any distractions interfering with the results of their human experiments.
There’s a long, stainless steel food bar at one end of the room. Pastas and sandwiches and burgers and sushi and salad. Far too much to feed five people. What’s the test here? I wonder. Will they be rating our impulse control? Gauging our risk of obesity? Watching to see if we chew with our mouths closed? Then I figure it out.
They want to see us interacting. There’s only one table in the room. And five chairs. Someone has already hauled the sixth away. I doubt the surface of the table is big enough to hold all of Ivan’s food. He has a plate piled with hamburger patties. No buns or fixings. Just patties. A plate of sliced salami. An entire loaf of bread. And he’s filled a soup bowl with the carved radishes that were serving as garnishes. I glance up at the catwalk. It must be enclosed in electronic smart glass because in less than two seconds, it shifts from clear to opaque. Which means our guests have arrived at last. I just hope someone up there is paying attention to Ivan. The guy has some serious issues.
I’m the last to get my lunch. Aubrey is the only one who hasn’t worked up an appetite. She’s sitting at the table between Felix and Ella, who are chatting around her. Ivan is folding beef patties in half and shoving them into his maw. He doesn’t even bother to examine what he’s eating. He’s staring at Aubrey, and I can’t quite interpret the look in his eyes. I take the only seat left. It’s next to him. If we weren’t under surveillance, I might be up for a little lunchtime conversation. But this feels dangerous. I haven’t been here long enough to know when I’ve said the wrong thing. Apparently the others don’t share my concern.
“The natural has finally joined us for lunch,” Felix says. “He kinda looks like that movie star. You know the one I’m talking about?” he asks Ella.
“Frankenstein?” Ella points at my stitches.
It’s interesting to see how they operate. Felix flatters those he believes may have power. Ella takes potshots to prove she’s their equal. I ignore them both. At this point I’ll learn more by listening.
“He must be the strong, silent type,” Felix tells Ella in a stage whisper. “So who’s your jeweler up there in Chicago?”
While they discuss diamonds and dealers, I dig into lunch. My hamburger is remarkably good. I’m trying to remember when I last ate anything quite like it when I notice that Ivan is muttering to himself. Apparently his lips move when he thinks. He’s still fixated on poor, lifeless Aubrey. I stop chewing to listen. The few words I catch tell me Ivan has a crush. And he’s not the kind of guy who sends flowers. He’s the kind who kicks down doors in the middle of the night. The girl is in some serious shit.
“She’s mine,” I announce in a casual voice. “Touch her and I’ll neuter you with a butter knife.”
Why am I doing this? Why am I risking everything for some brain-dead meth addict?
Ella and Felix stop yammering. Ivan slowly swivels around to face me. “What did you say?”
I’ve already opened my big mouth, so I give him my toothiest smile. “I told you she’s mine, you f—ing Neanderthal. So are the other two. I have a huge appetite.”
“Excuse me?” Ella jumps in. “I am not—”
“Shut your face,” I growl. Ella glares at me but obeys. She’ll hate me for a while, but laying claim to her body is the only sure way to keep Ivan off it.
“If you mark your territory, you must be prepared to defend it,” Ivan says. The guy may be a brute, but he’s not quite as stupid as I thought.
“This school is my territory. Everyone in it belongs to me now. Including you.”
As a rule, I never punch first. Even in the ring, I let the other guy have the first go. It’s the best way to find out what you’re up against. The first punch says everything. But Ivan doesn’t punch. He grabs me by the throat instead. I feel the chair give way beneath me. In less than a second, I’ve been slammed up against the wall of the lunchroom. My brain reels from the impact. But I keep my neck bent forward so my skull doesn’t crack. The move would have killed another opponent. Ivan is unbelievably strong. His fingers are on the verge of crushing my windpipe. And what’s really impressive is that he doesn’t seem to care. Most guys I’ve fought have an internal alarm that goes off when they’re about to inflict serious damage. You can see a flicker of fear in their eyes. Ivan’s remain dull and dark.
I grab his wrist with one hand and ram my knee into his jaw. He lurches backward, and his grip loosens. I rip his hand from my throat, keeping hold of his wrist. I lock his elbow and use the arm to spin him around and force him down to the floor. Then I grab a hunk of hair and slam his head twice into the hard concrete. The splatter of blood even reaches the walls. I should have worn goggles.
I know Mandel’s people must be watching. But no one has come to Ivan’s rescue. I could end his miserable life with one more blow. Instead I climb off his carcass and return to the table. Ella and Felix practically cringe as I sit back down, wipe the blood off my hands, and take another bite of my burger. Aubrey is the only one who doesn’t seem shaken. The battle has brought her back to life. She doesn’t dare say a word, but I can see it on her face. She knows exactly what I just did. I saved her.
Two men in lab coats and surgical masks rush into the room and load Ivan onto a steel stretcher. Lucian Mandel holds the door open for them as they leave. “Flick?” he says. “Would you mind coming with me for a moment?”
We stroll along the wide hallway, which appears to be a giant square. The glass catwalk crosses the corridor at one point. But once you’re around the next corner, it’s out of sight. There’s a sense of privacy here, though I know not to trust it. The cafeteria door remains ajar, and we walk right past it and start a new lap. Mandel still hasn’t uttered a word.
The silence has given me a chance to think. At first I was worried I’d screwed everything up. All I had to do was play along. Instead, I nearly killed a fellow recruit. I figured Mandel would be furious. Now I can see he’s not angry at all. Not even close.
“Aubrey doesn’t seem like your type,” Mandel finally says.
“I’m not a necrophiliac,” I respond.
He laughs. “So you have no romantic interest in her?”
“No.” It would be ludicrous to pretend that I did.
“Still, you protected her. Did it ever occur to you that she might need to learn how to fend for herself? Aubrey can’t expect a white knight to come to her rescue every time she’s in trouble.”
I just demolished Ivan’s face, but that doesn’t appear to bother Mandel. He seems much more concerned that I tried to help Aubrey.
“I wasn’t protecting anyone,” I lie.
“Then why did you choose to make Ivan an enemy?”
“We would have ended up enemies anyway. I figured I’d make the first move and teach him a lesson. The great Chinese general Sun Tzu said that the victorious warrior wins first and then goes to war.”
“You’ve read Sun Tzu’s Art of War.” He’s impressed, I can tell.
“I’ve memorized it.” I’m sure that sounds great, but I hope he doesn’t decide to test me. I don’t know how many more quotes I could pull out of my ass.
Mandel seems to buy it. “We both know that your war could have ended this afternoon. You had a chance to destroy Ivan. You showed restraint by walking away. But Ivan should recover quickly, and when he does, he’ll want his revenge.”
“That’s what I’m counting on. Ivan is my only competition. The next three weeks would be a real bore without him.”
“What a fascinating young man you are,” Mandel says. I have no clue if he’s satisfied with the explanation I’ve given him. “I’m looking forward to seeing what you do next.”
“Thank you, sir,” I respond. “I hope it will be entertaining.”
This morning, there were a hundred questions I was eager to ask him. I’m finally learning to keep my mouth shut.
’m deep underground, in a cell with no windows—just a locked door without a knob. This is where I was brought yesterday after my session with the academy’s groomers. They trimmed my hair, filed my nails, and seemed disappointed that there wasn’t more work to be done.
My temporary quarters in the Incubation Suites are furnished with a bed, a bureau, and a rack of expensive clothing. It seemed perfectly comfortable at first, until I realized there’s no desk. No books. Not even an alarm clock. A small bathroom with no door is off to one side. Toiletries have been provided. Nothing dangerous or poisonous. No bottles made out of glass. They’ve even given me an electric razor. I wasn’t aware that anyone still used them.
There’s no way to hide from yourself in this place. The far wall of my cell features a wide, full-length mirror. Last night, while exploring my cage, I discovered that I could see my own reflection from every corner of the room. That’s when I began to suspect that I wasn’t alone. I rapped on the mirror, and the hollow sound confirmed that it wasn’t fixed to a solid wall. I waved at whoever was watching on the other side. And when dinner was delivered on a tray to my door, my reflection and I sat on the floor and shared the meal with my unseen guests. A bell rang shortly after the tray was taken away. I didn’t realize its purpose until the lights shut off a few minutes later.
The room was so dark that I could have slept with my eyes open. And yet I could still feel them watching. Fortunately, Peter Pan made good on his promise. He didn’t visit me during the night. Maybe he tried and couldn’t find a way in. But I know he hasn’t forgotten me because he sent me a dream.
I saw myself sitting on the steps outside the public pool in Hamilton Fish Park. It was a warm morning at the beginning of May, and I was desperate for a dip, but the pool was still closed for the season. Weeks had passed since I’d last been truly clean. I washed up in restrooms whenever I had the chance, but there are parts that need more than a wipe with a damp paper towel. And you can’t pick pockets if your marks smell you coming a mile away.
I heard sandals slapping the sidewalk and spotted a girl walking toward me. I’m not sure what caught my eye first. The wild black hair that floated behind her—or the long, lean body clad in an ankle-sweeping sundress. When the breeze pinned the fabric to her body, she might as well have been naked. She wasn’t beautiful. At least not in the model prom-queen pageant-winner way. She was absolutely magnificent.
“The pool doesn’t open till Memorial Day,” the girl stopped to inform me. I’d seen her before. She lived somewhere in the neighborhood, but I didn’t think she’d noticed me. My grubbiness rendered me invisible to almost everyone.
I checked over my shoulder, just to make sure I was the only person around.
“Why don’t you come with me,” she said.
“Where?” I asked, and instantly regretted it. It didn’t really matter where.
We walked side by side without saying a word. Most females get fidgety when no one’s talking. This girl seemed perfectly comfortable with the silence. We cut across Tompkins Square Park and turned left on Tenth Street. I kept inching closer to catch the scent she was trailing. Halfway down the block, she stopped outside the Russian Baths, and I realized we’d reached our destination.
“I don’t have any money,” I told her, patting my empty pockets.
“If you come before business hours and tell them Joey sent you, they won’t ask you to pay.”
“Who’s Joey?” I asked.
“That’s me. Spelled J-o-i.”
“Are you French?” I asked. I’d been wondering where they grew girls like Joi. I’d never seen anyone who looked quite like her.
“No.” She laughed. “Not even a little bit.”
I took a shower first and gave my clothes a light wash. Then I grabbed a robe from the pile stacked up for patrons and set out in search of Joi. When I reached the ice-cold plunge pool, I found her. Goddesses have been known to murder mortals who catch sight of them naked. Joi just smiled as though she had nothing to hide. There was something so innocent about it that I knew she wasn’t trying to seduce me. But she did.
When I woke, I felt warm, wet skin under my fingertips. The sensation slipped away, but I could still see Joi treading water. Then the lights in my cell came on with no warning. Joi faded, and another day began.
I thought I knew what I was doing when I came here. It all seemed so simple. Take a few classes. Graduate in nine months. Get the proof Mandel promised. Destroy my father and join my brother. I thought it would be easy to leave Joi behind. This morning I found out I was wrong.
• • •
I’m glad I worked up the energy to shower and dress because the door of my cell just slid open. There’s a woman standing outside in the hall, waiting to escort me to the first experiment of the day. She’s attractive. All the women who work here are attractive. The men are too, come to think of it. But it’s hard to look at any of them. Whenever one of the employees meets my eyes, I can tell she’s staring straight through me.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“Lights on is at seven. Breakfast is at eight. Starting tomorrow, you will not have an escort. So please pay attention. You’ll be expected to find your own way.”
“Maybe you should give us maps.”
“You won’t need a map. I’m going to show you everything you need to know.”
There are signs on the doors now. The woman reads them all, as though I’m incapable of doing so on my own. She starts with room 6. My room.
“Room five, room four, room three, room two, room one,” she says as we walk down the hall. These are the other students’ cells. We turn a corner. “Classroom one, classroom two, classroom three.” We turn another corner. “Media room, gym, cafeteria.” The gym is in the center of the square formed by the hallway. It’s got to be huge. The woman stops at the cafeteria, but I take a peek around the next corner. I see the elevators and two unmarked doors. I’m guessing the first one hides a stairwell to the glass catwalk that passes above my head and into the gym.
“What’s down this way?” I ask.
“Those rooms are for employees only,” she states.
The woman pushes a metal button that opens the cafeteria door, and I step inside. It’s the same place where I taught Ivan his little lesson, but a new set seems to have been constructed during the night. The bottom half of the room has been transformed into a ritzy brasserie. The restaurant has four walls but no ceiling. Instead of the self-service food bar, there are five tables with crisp white tablecloths. Antique mirrors with gilded frames reflect the warm light shed by brass sconces. When I look up, the illusion ends. The brasserie’s walls are only ten feet high. Above that mark, the room still resembles a soundstage. The catwalk’s glass is clear. I’m the first to arrive.
A waiter approaches me. Not a waiter, I remind myself. One of them in a black vest and white apron.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” he says. “Table for one?”
“Oui,” I respond, deciding to play along. “Je voudrais une table près de la fenêtre, s’il-vous plaît.”
It’s one of the four or five phrases I ever managed to memorize. I knew better than to expect a laugh, but my joke seems to catch the faux waiter completely off guard. Mandel should have hired someone who speaks a little French.
“Oh, never mind,” I say with an exaggerated sigh. “Just give me the very best table you have.”
I take my seat. I’m placing my napkin in my lap when Ella arrives. I feel the urge to applaud, so I do. Her hair has been cut and restored to its natural color. Now that there’s nothing to distract from her face, I can see how stunning she is. They’ve put her in a simple gray shirtdress and confiscated most of her diamonds. The only ones left are the tasteful studs in her ears. When Ella gives me the finger on her way to her table, I notice that her acrylic nails have been removed. I wish I could assure her that she doesn’t seem any less fierce without her claws.
Felix is next. He looks like a J. Crew model with his coral-colored oxford shirt tucked into a pair of olive chinos. Not much of a difference, truth be told, but he doesn’t seem particularly pleased. Probably because someone told him to button his shirt all the way to the top. He’s followed by Ivan. It’s hard to focus on anything other than the white bandage across his nose and his two swollen eyes, but I can see he’s been given a respectable haircut, a shirt custom-made for his brawny torso, and a pair of black pants. He smiles at me as he passes. I’m not sure if it’s a peace offering or a threat. But I’m impressed by the quality of his new veneers.
Aubrey arrives last. The transformation is remarkable. They’ve darkened her hair and cut some bangs. The blue eyes peeking out from beneath them are framed by long, black lashes. Her lips don’t need any liner to form a true Cupid’s bow. She’s wearing heels, a pencil skirt, and a diaphanous blue shirt that matches her eyes. The same eyes that haven’t left my face since the moment she walked into the room. I hope she hasn’t gotten me mixed up with Prince Charming. That wouldn’t be good. Not good at all. I rescued her once, but I may not be willing to do it again.
Our waiter glides between the tables, delivering a menu to each of us. Another man arrives and wordlessly makes his way around the room. He’s different from the other academy employees. He actually seems to see us. His sense of style makes me suspect that he might be Italian. It feels formal and casual all at once. Red check shirt carefully rolled up to the elbows. A striped tie with a double Windsor knot. Sleek navy pants that are tapered at the ankle. Glasses with fashionable frames that probably don’t hold corrective lenses.
“Excellent,” the man announces when he reaches my table. I stand corrected. He’s American. “Ivan, where is Flick’s napkin?” I can tell he’d prefer to call us by our surnames if we had any.
“Huh?” Ivan grunts.
“Flick’s napkin is in his lap. Folded lengthwise with the fold facing toward him,” the man says, not bothering to wait for an answer. “Ella, where are Flick’s elbows?”
I turn to see that Ella has one elbow on the table. Her head is propped up by her palm. “Who gives a f—?” she sneers. I have a feeling somebody isn’t too thrilled by her makeover.
The man’s nostrils flare, but his voice remains calm. “That’s the last time you—or any of your classmates—will use that word while you’re inside these walls. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir!” I chirp. I think I may be on my way to becoming the teacher’s pet.
He pats me on the shoulder but keeps his eyes locked on Ella. “Do I?”
“Yes,” she says.
“As for why you should care, to be perfectly frank, you look vulgar and ignorant. Should you ever find yourself in a restaurant like this, your fellow diners won’t be impressed by your disdain for the rules. They’ll be too busy snickering at your crudeness. Now sit up straight and keep your legs closed.”
Ella does what she’s told. In fact, there’s no longer a single bent spine in the room.
“My name is Mr. Jones. I will be joining you for all of your meals this week. I know many of you have come here with only the haziest knowledge of etiquette. But rest assured, by the time we’re finished, you’ll be ready to break bread with presidents and royalty.”
I’m not sure Mr. Jones realizes what kind of challenge he’s set for himself. Having lunched with my classmates yesterday, I’m convinced that Ivan has been eating out of a pig trough for the past seventeen years. Ella is only marginally more refined. Even Felix grips his fork like a garden spade.
“Flick,” Mr. Jones says. “I’m appointing you to be my teacher’s aide.”
• • •
I spent two dull hours tutoring the troglodytes this morning, and now I’m playing the same role again. We’re in classroom 1, which the academy’s set designers have decorated to resemble the library of an elite Manhattan club. Leather armchairs. Wood paneling. Shelves with sliding ladders. But the fireplace is fake, and all the books are just props. There’s nothing printed on their pages. When we entered, the catwalk above was empty. As soon as Ms. White, our elocution instructor, asked each of us to stand and give a short speech on a subject of our choosing, the catwalk’s glass began to fog up.
I decided to introduce my classmates and observers to Schrödinger’s Cat—Europe’s first zombie and scientific proof that it’s possible to be dead and alive at the very same time. I’m not sure what she made of the topic, but Ms. White was duly impressed by my clear enunciation and understanding of grammar. I had an excellent teacher growing up, I almost informed her. When my father delivered a lesson, he made sure you never needed another.
Now Ms. White is dedicating herself to training Ivan to speak in something other than grunts, and I’ve found myself paired with Aubrey. I hadn’t actually heard her voice until the rambling speech she just delivered on the subject of Smoky Mountain fireflies. As it turns out, she speaks with a maddening twang. Not the kind of southern drawl that calls to mind mint juleps and cotillions. Aubrey’s accent is of the possum-eatin’, cousin-kissin’ variety.
We’re both given a single sheet of paper with the same long list of phrases. I read one, and Aubrey repeats it, trying to enunciate the words properly. It would probably help if she watched my lips as they form the sounds. But she keeps trying to catch my eye. When she finally does, I know in an instant that I’m not her Prince Charming. This isn’t how girls look when they’re love struck. This is how they look when they’re petrified. And if she’s already scared, she shouldn’t be here. It will probably be dangerous, but the first chance I get, I’m going to give Aubrey Joi’s address and advise her to get herself kicked out of school.
I don’t know why, but I want Aubrey to know that she’ll be okay. But my smile only seems to convince her that she’s not getting through to me, and she’s almost twitching with frustration. Finally she leaps to her feet, rips up the sheet of paper, and tosses the pieces into the air. Except for one little scrap that she’s kept in her hand. While everyone’s watching the confetti flutter to earth, she presses the scrap into my palm. There’s one word on it: GO. I let it fall to the floor.