Chapter One


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 day.

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 eyebrows.

“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 them up?”

“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?”

Amanda snorted.

“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, smiling.

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 kind.

“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 benefit, though.

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.

Paul laughed.

“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 again.”

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 times.”


“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 tested.”

“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 score.”

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 seen.

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 brusque.

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 might be.”

“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 calmly.

“Do you cry a lot... Amanda Cantrell?”

“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,” she said.

This guy was weird!

“Stand up.”

She stood uncertainly.

“Sit down.”

Frowning slightly, she sat again.

“How are you at following orders?”

“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 after all.

“Stand up.”

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.”

“Do it.”

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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How much sleep do you normally get?”

“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.

“Stand up.”

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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Louder, Cantrell,” he barked.

“Yes, sir!”

He moved in uncomfortably close.