Amanda Cantrell was an
ambitious young woman. She had grown up in Queens, New York, a handful of
blocks from the poverty and gang infested neighborhoods of the south side. Her
mother worked at Wal-Mart and Starbucks, and had little time, between the two,
for raising a daughter, though she did her best.
If there was one character trait she had impressed on Amanda it was the
need for hard work. And if there was one lesson Amanda had learned, largely in
her absence, it was that being poor sucked. Maybe things would have been better
had her father lived, or had the insurance company not decided there was an
obscure 'pre-condition' which allowed them to not pay on his death.
But she had grown up
watching her mother scramble after every dime and was determined not to do the
same. She applied herself at school and was sufficiently intelligent to garner
a partial scholarship at NYU.
She made the long commute
to Manhattan every morning and evening, never missing a class, and studying
hard. She hadn't taken any of those silly liberal arts course, either. Nor had
she the aptitude, she thought, for computers. She took business. Something solid,
which could, she hoped, stand her in good stead in those massive towers in the
sky which hovered over the south of Manhattan, and which she passed by every
She spent little time on
socializing, either in high school or college. There were dates, and men, but
she simply hadn't the time and refused to be distracted. Sex was easy to come
by and overrated, in any event. Romance could wait.
She put little effort into
her appearance either, though she was an attractive and well-built girl. She
saw no benefit to that effort, no profit in it. She had no need to impress the
boys at school, her fellow commuters, or her teachers.
She exercised studiously,
because having seen her father fade away she had as much determination to
maintain her health as she did to climb out of near-poverty. She ate well, and
drove her body to ensure it was at peak efficiency.
But that was for her sake,
and nobody else's.
At least, until she met
Sara Moore in a Financial Administration class. Sara was a blonde, and put far
more effort into her appearance than Amanda. She had an expensive haircut, and
her hair always shone. She wore excellent clothes which were form fitting, but
not too tight as to raise eyebrows, and was always mindful of how she looked.
They became, if not close
friends, close acquaintances while working on a project, and one day while
sitting in the library together, Amanda experienced one of those moments of
understanding and enlightenment which occasionally made her slap her forehead
at how oblivious she was to the obvious.
They had nearly finished
for the day when Sara pulled out her brush and casually brushed her long hair.
Amanda, who had come to have a healthy respect for the girl's intelligence,
felt a sense of exasperation.
“You know, Sara, you are a
really intelligent and capable person,” she said.
Sara raised her eyebrows as
she brushed. “Thanks, I guess.”
“You don't need to put as
much effort into your appearance as you do,” Amanda said bluntly.
Sara looked at her and then
grinned as she finished and put the brush into her hair.
“Amanda, no offense, but
sometimes you're just naive.”
Now Amanda raised her
“The people we're going to
school with are going to become contacts we can use throughout our life in
business,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “The impression we give them now will
endure for years. The fact I'm both good looking and very professional will
remain with them, especially the guys, so that if I call them up in five or ten
years they'll remember me.
“Why would you want to call
“You realize there is an
alumni list, right? And that alumni tend to help each other out sometimes? I
mean, say you want to work for a bank, and you check the alumni list and hey,
Jeremy, who you went to school with, now works at a big bank! Hey, so you call
him up and say hey Jeremy, this is Amanda. Remember me from NYU? And maybe
he'll let you know if they're hiring and get you an interview. Maybe not, of
course, but there's no downside to trying.”
“I... guess,” Amanda said.
“But that presumes he even really knew me or was a friend or ...”
“Amanda, dear, has it not
struck you that some of our classes are not really very exciting?”
“And when class is boring,
and the professor is boring, do your eyes not wander around the class, and
perhaps fasten on an attractive member of the male persuasion?”
“I guess, sometimes.”
“I assure you the men do.
The men quickly come to know every girl in their class who is attractive. And
even if they never speak to her they remember her. The more attractive she is
the better they remember.”
“That's because they spend
their shower time thinking of you naked,” Amanda said cynically.
Sara grinned. “So? That's
something that's been happening since junior high. I'm not going to worry about
it. The point is men are men, and if I call one of those guys up in a few years
he'll remember me, and because I'm reasonably cute he might just go out of his
way to help me out.”
“Isn't that like... I don't
know, trading on your looks?” Amanda asked doubtfully
“It's marketing, Amanda.
You can't judge a book by its cover, but if the book has an unattractive cover
then chances are you won't even open it up. Why do you think advertising pays
so well? Because they know how to draw people's eyes
so the product gets a chance. You, my dear, are a product, and so am I. It's
still a year to graduation but you need to think about how to market yourself.”
The more Amanda thought
about it, and the more she googled statistics and studies about how much more
likely it was that tall people and attractive people were to be hired and
promoted, the more she realized how dumb she had been.
That didn't mean she was
going to sex herself up. That would definitely be the wrong image. But she did
start to pay attention to her image and how she looked to others. She stopped
tying her hair back in a pony tail, got it styled nicely, and let it grow a
little longer, past her shoulders.
She wore clothes she judged
to make her look attractive, but still in a professional way. No more
sweatshirts and torn jeans. It was a narrow line to walk between looking
attractive and looking sexy. But push too far over that line and she'd look
like a slut, or like she was trying to use her looks to get something.
Which, of course, she was.
But making that obvious was not how the game was played.
She was blessed with full
breasts and a narrow waistline. That meant almost anything she wore which was
form fitting was going to draw the eyes of the guys. As long as it wasn't too
tight, though, she should escape censure from other girls.
She determinedly researched
how to walk that line, how to make herself look as attractive as possible
without anyone condemning her as looking slutty, and consulted with Sara on
makeup tips while rummaging through the second-hand shops for flattering clothes.
No one could have faulted
her appearance as she waited for an interview with McMann-Harris some six
months later. Graduation hadn't yet happened, but it was looming, along with
finals. She and every other fourth year student was scrambling for jobs.
She had researched the
company after its name had appeared on the recruitment list of those companies
coming to school to do job interviews with the graduating class. It was
something of a conglomerate, startlingly large given she'd never heard of them,
and involved in all manner of businesses.
They bought ailing
businesses cheap, and turned them around with sound and ruthless management
practices, turning them into profitable entities again. Sometimes they then
sold those, or sometimes they folded them into their stable.
That suggested lots of
places where they could find a use for new and ambitious graduates.
She walked into the room
when called, and met with a pleasant older man, discussed her courses, what she
liked doing, what her ambitions were, and all the usual things one did in job
interviews. The only out-of-the-ordinary aspect of it was that the interview
was done under the gaze of a video camera. But she didn't object to that.
A lot of men had to be wary
being alone in a room with a woman, or for that matter, any sort of identity
group who might complain later that they'd been discriminated against. Amanda
thought this was a pretty good idea.
It was not a memorable
interview, just one of many that she attended in between studying for her final
exams. But it was to prove a turning point in her life. Because a month later
she was called downtown for a second interview.
She wore her best suit –
her only good suit, really. It was an investment. It was a cream-colored suit
with a double-breasted blazer which had a narrow waist and large brown wood
buttons. The skirt was tight, but not too tight, and several inches above the
knees. She wore a high necked, forest green blouse underneath, and a gold
choker around her neck.
She hid her nervousness
well, she thought, but she felt a jolt when she met with the HR man who had
done the first interview, and he immediately led her up to the seventieth floor
– of the seventy-floor building. He led her up a wide corridor which was softly
bathed in concealed lighting, over a floor of gray marble.
The whole place simply
reeked of money!
At the end of the hall he
led her into a room where a large man several years older than her sat behind a
large desk. He rose and introduced himself.
“I'm Paul,” he said,
shaking her hand.
Paul was an impressive
looking man! He was six and a half feet tall, handsome, and very well built!
Yet he, like Amanda, wore a very professional demeanor and what was probably a
tailored suit to offset any idea he was simply some wide-shouldered airhead.
“Amanda,” she said,
He seemed young for such a
large office, she thought, clearly not yet thirty, but didn't comment on it.
They sat down and he asked her some odd question
related to her health, how much traveling she'd done and whether she was
willing to travel. He wanted to know if she exercised, and how much, and what
“The position we're
considering for you requires someone young, healthy and with a considerable
degree of stamina,” he said. “Intelligence, too, naturally, but Mister Thompson
said you struck him as extremely bright, and your marks indicate the same.”
“Well, I think I'm pretty
healthy,” Amanda said. “I make it a point to eat right and exercise since
there's not much point in anything else in the world if you're not healthy.”
Unlike her first interview
this was not on video, which she thought might be wise, since it seemed to her
that Paul was stepping over the line in some of the questions he asked, such as
she was married or seeing anyone seriously. That didn't seem to be for personal
Asking about her political
views was even stranger. She was pretty sure HR wouldn't like that, but she
openly confessed to spending little time or effort on politics.
“Would you consider your
societal views to be politically correct or incorrect?” he asked.
Another puzzling question!
“I couldn't say, really. I
mean, I know that there are a lot of people at school who are awfully...
passionate about some things which I haven't spent a lot of time worrying
about, like what pronoun to use to describe someone who is uhm, uncertain about
their gender. I simply haven't spent any time on that sort of thing.”
“The position we have in
mind for you is a personal assistant to an important man. He does a lot of
traveling. He has little time for the minutia of life. He also has little
patience for fools and can be... acerbic at times in his observations.”
“Rude. Perhaps blunt would
be a better term. He's a man who speaks his mind because there's never been
around to tell him he can't. And if that offends people he really does not
care. He is not a man given to much consideration for other people's delicate
feelings about political or social views. I guess what I'm asking is if you
consider that might cause you a lot of stress.”
“If the pay is acceptable
he can call himself King and curse the peons for all I care,” Amanda said.
“I warn you. Loyalty, a
closed mouth, and hard work are all absolutely requirements of this position.
Fail at any of them and you'll be gone so fast you won't have time to blink. In
turn, Mister Harris will demonstrate a degree of attention to your future
well-being which will virtually assure you of never having to worry about money
That, of course, was an
offer too amazing to possibly turn down. She didn't care if this Harris guy had
a swastika or a hammer and sickle tattooed on his chest if he'd do that!
“That sounds extremely
attractive,” she said.
“He's also... eccentric, at
“People who grow up without
much in the way of boundaries, used to getting their own way, who also happen
to be brilliant and creative can veer off in any direction they think amuses
them,” he said. “Don't expect predictability. And you might expect to be
“I would expect to be – .”
“No, to be tested by Mr.
Harris means he might say something he doesn't even believe in just to gauge
your reaction, or do something to see if it... dismays or angers you. Mr.
Harris is not very tolerant towards underlings who try to tell him what to do
or how to behave. Actually, he's not even very tolerant to his family on that
She raised her eyebrows.
“But once he accepts you
and your commitment to him and his company, you can get away with murder,” he
said with a grin. “As long as you maintain those three
character traits of loyalty, hard work and a closed mouth.”
“I'm not a gossip, and I'm
used to hard work.”
“Loyalty has to be earned,”
he said. “But we'll see.”
He stood up and went to the
door behind the desk, knocked, and entered, then turned and motioned to her.
The office past his was
like nothing she'd ever imagined.
The wall to her right and
the wall directly in front of her were solid glass, floor to ceiling. The one
ahead was slanted outward at a steep angle. The floor was made of a light brown
marble, and there was a huge glossy dark wood table next to the window to her
right which could seat ten.
Directly in front of her,
set against the slanted glass wall was a blood red rug, on which two full sized
black leather sofas faced each other across a wide, low buttoned-leather
ottoman – or was it a coffee table? Far to her left was a wall of dark, glossy
wood shelves and cupboards and before it sat the largest desk she had ever
Its top was probably four
inches thick and solid walnut. Two leather chairs sat before the desk, but it
could easily have been four, even five. The desk was that large and solid.
Behind it sat a man in his forties with dark, narrowed eyes, an almost
suspicious scowl on his face.
He had short dark hair, a
strong jaw, high cheekbones, and a non-nonsense look which said, “Justify why
you are here bothering me,” without him having to say a word.
“Michael Harris, Amanda
Cantrell,” Paul said.
Amanda felt her stomach
fluttering under that intense gaze and was suddenly extremely nervous, counting
the many ways she couldn't possibly measure up to his impossibly high standards
– whatever they were!
“Sit,” he said.
Paul stepped back and left
her alone, and Amanda almost panicked, but then steeled herself and sat down in
one of the chairs before his desk.
He looked at her without
speaking. And she wondered if that was calculated to make her nervous. If so it
was working! Then she remembered Paul saying that he liked to test people to
see how they reacted. She put on her calmest look and looked back with a
pleasant, interested look on her face.
“You have nothing to say?”
he finally said.
His voice was deep and
Amanda almost panicked
again. Had she guessed wrong!? What should she say!?
“I've already decided I
want this job, Mr. Harris. But you probably know that,” she finally said.
“You're the one who wants to determine if he wants to me to have it. To do that
you'll have to ask me something, so I was waiting for you to consider what that
“A young person who knows
to keep quiet when she doesn't have anything of value to say. Amazing,” he said
in that same cool, toneless voice.
She continued to look back
“Do you cry a lot... Amanda
“No, sir,” she said.
“Young women, it seems to
me, tend to cry a lot. They get upset at things people say or at life's
frustrations, and then they cry. I don't like crying females.”
“I'll try not to cry then,”
This guy was weird!
She stood uncertainly.
Frowning slightly, she sat
“How are you at following
“As long as those orders
are clear I have no difficulty whatever,” she said.
“And how are you at keeping
questions to yourself, presuming those orders are clear?”
“I... can be as good as you
want me to be.”
“A lot of people seem to
find the need to question the wisdom or motivation of my orders. They ask if
I've considered this or that, or if that's really what I want to do, and maybe
I should do this instead. I can accept that from someone of comparable
abilities and experience, but hearing it from virgins just out of their mothers’
wombs tries my patience.”
“I will not question your
orders, then,” she said.
This guy was coming across,
to her, like an overbearing asshole. She wondered if she really wanted this job
Frowning, she obeyed.
“Take off your jacket.”
She almost asked why, but
then, heart beating a little faster, removed her blazer and put it on the back
of her chair.
“Can you do a push-up?”
“Uhm, yes, sir.”
This was definitely weird!
She dropped to her hands
and knees, wondering how he'd even see her from behind that enormous desk, but
as she straightened her body into a plank and then lowered her chin to the
floor she saw him appear around the desk, watching her.
She did the push-up.
“Hold your position.”
She did so.
“Do you do yoga?”
“How much sleep do you
“That depends, but maybe
six hours. Sometimes less.”
“Do another push-up.”
She did a second push-up
and held her position.
“I do a lot of walking. Do
you think you can keep up, Cantrell?”
“I do five K runs
regularly,” she said.
She stood up, facing him.
“Shoulders back, chest out.
Head up, arms at your sides.”
She obeyed, because she
couldn't think of what else to do. And Harris had a very commanding presence.
Out from behind the desk he was about six feet tall, which put him three inches
taller than Amanda, and while he wasn't as big as Paul he had broad shoulders
inside a very expensive suit.
“I think experience in the
military would probably be a good introduction to this job,” he said. “They
teach you, in the military, to obey orders instantly and completely.”
He moved in close before
her and she blinked under his close-in gaze.
“The point of boot camp,
Cantrell, is to break you down and wash you out if you're weak. If you're not
weak, then you get built up into something the military can use, a part of an
enormously powerful and disciplined organization. Let me hear you say yes sir.”
“Louder, Cantrell,” he
He moved in uncomfortably