Everywhere I looked all I could see were people posturing and preening for the others in the room. This was supposed to be a meet-and-greet mixer for this year’s recruitment class, but instead of trying to get to know the people we would be spending the next six weeks with, it seemed everyone was only interested in one-upping the person they were talking to. Mr. Blue Eyes and Blond hair to my right was a prime example as he argued that his five years of service in the Marines was far superior to the time that Mr. Broad Shoulders and Fully Tattooed arms to my left, spent in semi-pro athletics. Neither asked for my opinion. To them, I was just another one of the women provided by Whistler to act as the “prize” for the winner of the whose-dick-is-bigger competition of the night.
I silently sighed, tuned out their conversation, and looked over the dimly lit room filled with men that could have stepped out of a P90X commercial and women with dresses that could have been painted on. Servers decked out in all back weaved through the room in an attempt to keep every glass in the room full. Whistler had spared no expense, and we were currently in a large rectangular back room of the nicest restaurant in town. Considering this was Helena Montana, and the population was only thirty-thousand with the majority of them being farmers, being the best in town wasn’t saying much. The walls were built to look like the inside of an old log cabin with rough logs interlaced together and about an inch of exposed white sealant. Hunter’s trophies in the form of stuffed animal heads lined these walls, and the five chandeliers in the room were made up of several sets of antlers. Stretching along the far wall was a small six-foot serving bar made out of a single log that was cut down the middle length-wise.
I had identified the three main exits the moment I entered the room, but I couldn’t help glancing back towards them to reassure myself that I had the option to leave at any point. Despite no one really paying me any attention nor there being any real threat to my safety, my stomach churned with nerves, and I itched to take the three strides that would take me to the closest exit to my left. This was the first crowd I had volunteered to be in since I had escaped my old existence, and I was finding it very difficult not to bolt and forget this whole stupid idea.
I ignored my instinct to flee, continued to tune out the two men as a woman in the highest fuck me heels I have ever seen approached them, and pondered if any of the men in the room were hired to ensure that my night included a happy ending. As there were only two female recruits for this training cycle, I doubted that Whistler went through the trouble. Not that I would have taken that particular bait. After my last relationship, the last thing that I wanted was to have to deal with a man in my life again and the idea of casual sex made my skin crawl.
The thought of female recruits caused my eyes to land on the only other women insane enough to enter the Whistler Corporation’s fall training cycle. Which basically boils down to a six-week-long job interview that includes pushing all known physical and mental limits. And the lucky ones that survive this evaluation of strength and acuity get paid insane amounts of money to work on a team within the Whistler private security firm. This cycle has thirty recruits, twenty-eight men and two women. Those two women were myself and the insanely gorgeous Elena Petrov, who has slowly been making every man in the room drool over her all night. This was especially impressive because of all the paid entrainment that was crammed into the room. Elena must be at least 5’11’’ with her heels and had straight platinum blonde hair down to her shoulder blades. She was showcasing a short, skin-tight black cocktail dress that highlighted her overly toned arms and legs along with an emerald teardrop necklace that drew the eye to her ample cleavage.
I decided that I hated her on sight. We are supposed to be here to train to be the private upgrade to elite soldiers. Not to play a part in the wet dreams of our male counterparts. If I hadn’t hacked into Whistler’s network and reviewed all the recruitment files, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish Elena from the other working girls. I had shown up tonight in a pair of hip-hugger skinny jeans that were tucked into knee-high leather boots, with a what I considered a pretty, yet practical green long sleeve sweater. My shoulder-length wavy and full-bodied raven-colored hair was pulled up into a high ponytail and my face was free of makeup except for some simple mascara. I completed the look with a kickass A-line leather jacket that was loose enough to allow full range of motion and to cover the Sig-Sauer handgun I had in a holster nestled in the small of my back.
The servers were now handing out brightly colored shots off of round trays and the noise level within the room was continuing to rise as the short glasses disappeared off of the trays. “This is beyond ridiculous,” I mumbled to myself as I quietly moved into the shadow of a support column and took a deep breath. I needed to shake the feeling that I had made a huge mistake by choosing to complete this training program. This was the first major decision I had made completely on my own and the uncertainty was eating at me. I was free now. Free to wear jeans instead of a skimpy dress. Free to decide what city to live in. Free to apply to whatever job I saw fit. And free to decide to be a good person instead of masquerading within the dregs of society.
I noticed that the tone of the party was turning rowdy in proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed. Didn’t these assholes remember that our training started at the break of dawn tomorrow? Maybe this party was a test in restraint orchestrated by Whistler. If that’s the case, very few of my peers would pass, if the scene unfolding before my eyes was anything to go by. I scanned the ceiling, looking for security cameras. I would be very surprised if the top security company in the nation didn’t have eyes on us right now.
While most of the men were focused on the women hanging on their every word, my attention was drawn to a pair of guys that were egging a taller guy to take yet another shot. It was clear from their body language that the two thugs thought they were superior to the tall one. As Mr. Tall turned to grab another shot from the bar I was able to get a better look at his face and match him to his personnel file. Mr. Tall was Oliver Paxton. He was six-three and lacked the muscles that most of the room was packing. He had fair skin with a round face and his cheeks were sprinkled with freckles. He was sporting badly tailored slacks and a simple blue button-down that looked like he already spilled at least one shot down his front. According to his personnel file, Oliver was a computer genius. He recently graduated top of his class at Caltech and just sold some new hot phone app to the highest bidder. Oliver did not fit the Whistler stereotype of bulked up ex-military type. I wondered why he chose this line of potential work instead of capitalizing on his skills at some millennial start-up company. The main reason I had read so deeply into his file was that he clearly didn’t fit the Whistler mold.
The two steroid junkies with Oliver were Vincent Costa and Brett Jenkins. I didn’t memorize everything in all the files, so I couldn’t recall the specific background of these two, but I recognized the type. The world has always been their oyster and they solve any problems they might run into by bulldozing straight through them without any finesse. They were the brawn behind the brains. The foot soldier to the ranking officer. The classic bully that felt powerful when putting down others. And right now, they were finishing their drinks and ushering Oliver outside through a back door.
I didn’t like the malicious looks that Vincent and Brett were giving each other once Oliver turned his back. It really was none of my business and nothing good would come out of my putting my nose into a situation where it didn’t belong, but my days of turning a blind eye to the suffering of others were over. I copied the smooth movements of the servers and glided through the crowd. Once I reached the far door I followed the small group out into the alley outside. I took a moment to survey the surroundings and finally spotted them gathered near a chain-link fence that bordered the neighboring property. They had moved through the alley quickly and I was too far away to stop the first punch that Oliver took to the stomach, causing him to double over and throw up.
As I approached unnoticed in the shadow of the building I pondered the best way to intervene. Once in earshot, I heard one of the schoolyard bullies telling Oliver that nerds had no right to be here and he would never be good enough to even make it through the first day of this program. He used a supremely condescending voice to explain that they were doing Oliver a favor by reminding him of his place, which was behind some desk. He emphasized this point by punching the still doubled-overed Oliver. The entire scene was so cliché that if I wasn’t worried about these two seriously injuring Oliver, I would have laughed.
After a moment of thought, I decided that laughing could be an answer here. It would draw attention away from Oliver and maybe I would be able to diffuse the situation before it spiraled out of control. I made my presence known by letting out a low menacing chuckle.
“It’s the twenty-first-century guys. Don’t you know that nerds are at the top of the social food chain nowadays?” I said as I took a step into the light.
Vincent was the first to react and after turning to see who was speaking he took a moment to scan my body and my surroundings. The moment he deduced that I was a woman and alone he dropped his guard and stepped towards me stating “How about we go back to my place and I will show you the skills that keep me permanently at the top of any food chain.”
As he got closer and I got a good look at his face, I could see the physical appeal of a guy like this. He was tall, had broad shoulders, a defined square jaw, and clearly was of Italian descent. He was the epitome of confidence and strength dipped in raw sexuality. I doubted that Vincent Costa had ever been rejected in his life. Well, there was a first time for everything.
“I have a better idea. How about you go back inside and grab one of the many ladies that Whistler has ensured won’t say no to you. I am sure they are trained to provide whatever your large ego demands.” Mmm, his face isn’t so handsome when twisted with anger and indignation. I held my ground as Vincent stepped into my personal space and raised a hand to grip around my neck. He was not hurting me yet, just gripping enough to illustrate that he was in control.
I don’t like to be touched. I especially don’t like to be threatened. As Vincent’s alcohol-tinged breath invaded my senses and his fingers pressed into my delicate flesh, I fought against the flood of memories that threatened to overtake my control. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was free of The Family, and no matter what this thug thought, I was in control here.
“I think I will show you just how big my ego can get,” Vincent snarled into my face and tightened his grip around my neck.
I took a moment to reflect that his statement didn’t make much sense before reaching up, grabbing his pinky finger, and quickly breaking it along with his hold on my neck. I then leaned into the bulk of his chest and whispered in a voice that shook as my control started to slip, “Next time you touch someone, you better make sure they want it first.” Then I promptly kneed him in the balls and shoved him. Because he had hunched over his now severely bruised testicles, he was unable to keep his balance and ended up sprawled out on the dirty asphalt.
As Vincent moaned in pain, Brett abandoned his position by Oliver and moved towards me in an offensive stance that broadcasted that he was an experienced fighter. Brett looked to be of German descent with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a sense of entitlement. He was a little shorter than Vincent, but his torso and arms were so packed with muscle that I thought he resembled the cartoon version of Popeye but with admittedly better hair.
The predatory look in Brett’s eyes instilled a small spike of fear to lodge within my stomach causing adrenaline to start coursing through my system. This was not good. Things did not end well when I felt threatened. Whistler was supposed to be my new start. And somehow, I thought that kicking off this new chance with blood, was a bad omen. Maybe there was a chance I could still deescalate the situation and get these thugs to just let me and Oliver leave.
Ya and maybe pigs would fly.
Brett stepped in between me and Vincent and gave me a full look over. The predatory look in his eyes increased causing a similar increase in my anger. I had to take a deep breath and physical step back to try to calm the need to violently lash out that was bubbling in my veins. If I didn’t curb my temper, I would end up permanently injuring these idiots, and completely blow my chance at this shiny new beginning.
“Listen I don’t want any trouble. How about you two go back in and enjoy the rest of the party and we can take out our aggressions in training tomorrow.”
“Training?” Brett sneered, “Please don’t tell me that you actually think a little girl like you can become a Whistler agent.”
“I guess only time will tell,” I said as I began circling around Brett to place Oliver and the fence to my back. Oliver was clinging to the chain-link fence and clearly wasn’t in any shape to fight right now. I wanted these two to focus on me, but I also couldn’t protect Oliver from the other side of the alley.
“No. I will end this now. For both of you,” Brett growled. “I will not let some computer geek and Laura Croft want-a-be slut to make a mockery of Whistler.” With that, he launched into an attack leading with a right hook that I easily dodged. However, by this time Vincent had recovered and my quick feet had placed me squarely in front of him. Vincent grabbed me in a front bear hug, bringing the back of my body flush against the front of his. The contact triggered my gag reflex and I did the first thing that came to mind to get out of his hold. I headbutted Vincent, breaking his nose with an audible crunch and sending me into a wave of pain. I blinked away the slight dizziness and hooked my arm around Vincent’s back, pivoted my hips to the side, and threw his stumbling form into Brett. Both men crashed ineloquently to the ground.
“Fuck. She broke my nose!” Vincent moaned as Brett quickly jumped back to his feet and faced off with me once more. From the corner of my eye, I saw that Oliver was also fully back on his feet and approaching the fight wearily.
“I bet you think you're so talented,” Brett jeered at me as they began to circle each other. “So you can make a drunk guy bleed a little. Big-fucking-deal. The shit that Whistler agents do is life and death and there is no way I will put my life into the hands of a bitch like you.”
Brett’s words and the look in his eyes made my blood run hot, and without full conscious thought, I landed a right jab to his jaw causing an audible pop. I followed that up with two more quick jabs and an uppercut that knocked Brett out cold. His back flopped onto the cement next to a wide-eyed and silent Vincent who still had blood gushing from his nose. I locked gazes with Vincent, let him see the full weight of my anger, and took one small step towards him.
“Okay,” Vincent almost whined through the blood, “Okay I get it. We won’t mess with you anymore.”
I squatted down next to the unconscious Brett and continued to stare at Vincent with eyes that had turned as cold as ice and whispered, “You couldn’t touch with me on my worst day. But if I even think that you are even considering messing with Oliver again, I will do far worse than break your pretty little nose.” Then I slowly stood and turned my back on Vincent, illustrating that I didn’t consider him a threat, and faced the wide-eyed Oliver. I slowly massaged my stinging knuckles and stated, “Hello, my name is Payton Taylor.”