Night fell over the restless city, shadows stretched out from the alleyways and onto the roads until the world was basked in darkness. Deep within downtown was a neighborhood, left alone but not forgotten. The territory was notoriously owned and operated by the DeCarlos brothers. Men, haunched and haunted in thick fur coats patrolled their streets. Their eyes were sharp and watchful, but they did not look up. If they had, they would have noticed a lean figure lurking in the shadowy confines of an abandoned hotel opposite their office building.
With a hand shaking slightly, a cigarette was lit, its embers illuminating two piercing gold eyes. Taking a long drag, Nadia sat in her chair overlooking the street below. To her left was the old brick building, unmarked by graffiti or strays, the DeCarlos office. On the right, just across the street, was The Pink Leopard, proudly marked by the years. The street below was a mess of two types of men, those who patrolled, and those who stumbled through the doors of the brothel. Out of the hundreds that frequented the premises, only two men held of particular importance for her, Frank and Tony ‘The Freak’ DeCarlos.
The Family had two hundred men working under them, and 30 known associates. Their specialty ranged from money laundering and drugs to prostitution and low-level Hits. To Nadia, there was nothing unique about them, yet she was tasked to take out these two gangsters. It was insulting. Jaw clenched shut, Nadia stamped out her cigarette, the fabric of the armrest sizzled and smoked under its heat. For the past four years, she had been one of The Institute's best assassins. Her Hits never took more than a couple of days to complete. She took out those deemed untouchable, political leaders and billionaires who didn’t play well with others, and yet here she was, tasked with these two gangsters. It was like she was being punished for something. Between two fingers, she flicked the stump of her cigarette onto the floor. Her mind retraced her past assignments, searching for clues that might have aided this demotion. Sure, her Hits were taking longer to complete and she might have been taking a few more risks with her missions, but they couldn’t blame her for getting bored.
Movement stirred on the street below. Men and women were quick to move out of the way, scurrying into stores and out of sight, until the road was clear. Moving slowly to the window, Nadia peered out. As if she had been given a gift, a black car rolled into the street, slow and quiet. Stopping in front of the office building, two men descended from the car and surveyed the area. Nadia took in their tailored suits and the large metal guns the fabric concealed. Two bodyguards, Nadia noted, with a long drawn out blink. Hiding in the car’s protective walls was one silhouetted figure. The driver gave a curt nod and ten men ran out from the office building. The figure stepped out and the men closed in around him, acting as a human barrier. Nadia’s back straightened up at the sight, her eyebrows lifting. Maybe she wasn’t being punished after all?
Grabbing only momentary glimpses, she could see he was well dressed, lean, and around 6 foot 2.
“Finally,” Nadia whispered as she took in the sight of Frank DeCarlos.
Opening the window, Nadia allowed the icy breath of the blizzard outside to rush through her room. The chill seized Nadia’s limbs shocking her system into an alert state. It was 3am, with no sign yet of Tony. She had to keep awake, alert, and most of all - what the fuck was she doing on this mission. There was no plausible answer as to who would pay one million dollars to have these men killed. Mobsters have traditions, unspoken laws of how they do business. Paying for an assassin to take out their opposition was not their style, that they did that themselves. But if not rivals, then who? Nadia paced the length of the room, as her mind raced.
Soon after his brother’s arrival, the hulking figure of Tony ‘The Freak’ DeCarlos, appeared in her peripherals as he trudged alone through the streets. Hands gripping his coat collar against the wind, he walked with confident strides towards the Pink Leopard. Nadia sat down and adjusted the scope of her rifle, gripped by the sudden occurrence. Her eyes licked over every inch of Tony as he made his way inside. No matter the odd circumstances of the brother’s hit, it was one that had been tasked to her. Not a new, freshly born agent that didn’t know what they were doing, but to her. Nadia’s hands clenched into fists, turning her knuckles white. She could be their good little bitch and suck it up, take the two men out with the rifle sitting in front of her and finish it by morning. Or she could have some fun.
All she had to do was wait for the perfect opening.
Thick rolling clouds murmured and shook, their anger splintering across the sky. Nadia never forgot how the rumble felt before she ever heard it. She imagined they had been driving over a restless giant, the size of a small island. Her strength of belief that the giant lay, sleeping just below, had frozen her in fear. Each limb stuck like glue to the black leather upholstery. Her eyes wide, breath coming in shallow and careful.
Nadia was old enough to know that her fear was imagined and any question as to whether there was or was not a giant below would receive a scowl in judgment from her driver. And yet, she lay silent and cautious for hours as they drove, never daring to move or to look outside the backseat window.
“Wake up .” The driver’s voice was deep, his words slow and precise, thick in a Brooklyn accent. Not a voice Nadia had expected.
“Come on now, get up! They won’t take you half awake.”
Nadia pushed herself slowly off the seat and into an upright position, clumsily wiping her eyes awake as she finally turned her head to look outside. Her breath caught. The scenery was unrecognizable. Panic started bubbling through her veins. Each breath felt more constricted with every detail her eyes processed. They must have been driving for hours. She must have fallen asleep. The clouds looked different. Nadia didn’t recognize the smell of the place around them. Cliff edges hung on each side of the car, the tires inches away from danger. Vertigo hit her as she tried to looked down at the crashing waves beneath but couldn’t see anything that far down. The height was overwhelming. Nadia’s small chubby fingers curled deep into the Italian leather seats as her eyes fixated on the road ahead.
“Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down.”
The words repeated themselves over and over again in her head until another fixture suddenly took prize.
They had come up to a wide opening of what looked like burnt orange land. The area was surrounded by a thick forest of trees, some so adorned by the island that its roots curved and interwind through rock face to support the half dangling trees on the cliff's edge. Every branch was bare and bone-like, their leaves curled in different arrays of decaying ember, their fallen mass covering the island’s soil.
Nadia imagined the leaves to be molten lava. If the driver swerved or faltered, their car would be slowly eaten by its liquid hot form.
Within minutes the car began to slow, reaching enormous metal gates. Nadia pressed her face against the cool glass of the window beside her. Her mouth gaped as she watched the heavy gate inch its way open. To Nadia, it looked like a fence to keep out giants. Quickly she spun around in her seat peering out the back window, to make sure no giant took advantage of this opening.
Nadia relaxed back down as the gate closed, now locking them inside its walls. The driver pulled the car up to the end of the now dirt road. An old woman, covered in draping black velvet, was waiting, watching their car pull up. Her cold stern eyes caught on to Nadia’s and didn’t let go.
An uneasy feeling washed over Nadia as she stared back at the stone-like figure. The loud click of the passenger door abruptly being opened made her jump.
“Out. Now!” The driver impatiently swung his hand in front of the open door. Slowly Nadia peeled herself out of the car to stand just behind the bulk of the driver. But that was no use. As soon as she was outside, he sauntered towards the statue-like lady, flickering his hand behind his back as he shook the lady’s hand, indicating Nadia to follow but she didn’t dare get any closer.
“Marsha, it so good to see you! How’s the leg?”
The lady took an iron-clad grasp of his hand, giving him a once-over as she mumbled her response.
Marsha’s eyes swiftly changed direction, looking in on Nadia’s cowering face half shielded by Frank. Nadia couldn’t help but notice Marsha’s slight German accent. Their voices became hushed, the accent undecipherable, but Marsha’s eyes never swayed from Nadia.
She could tell they were talking about her, about what happened to her - everyone did. An orphan, no one wants to take in. She’s damaged and unwanted, not a thing any happy family wanted to decorate or share their house with. A dark little creature who reminded them all of death and guilt.
The more Frank and Marsha talked, the more anxious Nadia felt. She didn’t want to stay in this place, left alone with the statue woman, but her hands still rung behind her back, unsettled with the thought of this place, this woman, not wanting her either. Where would she end up? Who would take her then?
Nadia could only make out a few words here and there, ‘twelve’, ‘a week ago’, ‘two languages’. And with that, she knew exactly what the majority of their hushed whispers were about. Being adopted at 12 was unlikely, no one wanted a pre-teen, they wanted babies and toddlers that still had a few more years of cute to them. They especially didn’t want someone who lost their family just over a week ago.
Nadia’s chest sank deep into her chest as she took in Marsha’s cold, unimpressed eyes.
Frank’s head turned to peer down at Nadia, his large, bright smile sinking as he took her in. He motioned with his head for her to come forth. This time Nadia obeyed. As she moved forward Frank outreached his arm and roped it around her shoulders, pushing her closer to them.
Marsha’s eye raked over her, judging every inch.
Cool, long fingers raked its way through Nadia’s hair, feeling every strand. Marsha murmured something to herself then gripped Nadia’s hands aggressively yanking it up towards her face, inspecting each nail.
“No vitamin or iron deficiencies.”
Nadia’s hands were dropped. Marsha surveyed her face, fingertips poking at her cheekbones and jaw.
“Pretty but not too pretty.”
Marsha stepped back and took in a deep, harrowing sigh. The slight limp to her left leg made her movement look painful and awkward, weakening her statue-like appearance.
Nothing else was spoken between them but somehow, as if Nadia had missed it, both Frank and Marsha turned away from each other. Frank slunk back into the car, while Marsha walked back through the forest. Nadia stood, uncertain of what to do or who to follow. Marsha stopped walking. She didn’t turn back or call but Nadia realized she must have decided to take her. Nadia jogged to catch up as a horrible cold feeling swelled inside of her with every step forward.
As Nadia reached her new caregiver’s side, Marsha looked immensely pained by the wait, her lips pursed and eyebrows cinched in like she trying with difficulty to keep her emotions at bay.
“Use your instincts. No one is going to baby you here. When you need to be told, you shall be. There should be no stutter in your step. Instincts are there for a reason. Use them, as I will not pause again.”
And with that, they walked in silence through the forest.
Deep within the forest, a large concrete building emerged. On the right was a large enclave of dirt, etched into the landscape by scores of grappling boys wrestling and fighting. Straight in front of the building’s entrance were rows of students all in P.E uniform training in rows of ten. It was no orphanage or boarding school Nadia would have ever imagined. Everything seemed bleak, a place for stern adults, not fields of children. She could tell no kids played games here, or sports or laughed. As Marsha marched them straight through the building’s entrance Nadia couldn’t help but find herself relieved in the thought of being able to be sad and still fit in.
The corridors were cold and stuffy, lights flickered on as they walked past. There was no wall art, no piece of decor to attempt at comfort or any displays of celebratory pictures and medals of past pupils’ achievements. Nadia couldn’t place what this place was and it unsettled her.
Soon, they came upon the wing of dormitories. Each one was exactly the same: fluorescent overhead lights, eight rows of bunk beds with four on each side of the room, made up neatly with folded laundry placed near the pillows. A boy with scraped bony knees stood up straight, with his head held high as Marsha ushered Nadia into the room.
“This will be your dorm. Last bed on the right, top bunk.”
Nadia nodded, quickly staring back at the boy who still held his head, eyes not moving from the ceiling above them.
“Kasper here will tell you how things work, the rules and what is expected of you .” And with that Marsha was gone. Nadia stood in puzzlement at the cold abrupt departure of the woman, and the weird military stance of the boy. Kasper relaxed with Marsha’s absence, furrowing his brow as he looked at her.
“You’re a girl?”
Nadia shifted her weight, unsure of how to respond.
“Girls don’t last here long. Come on, I’ll show you to your bed.”
Kasper swiveled dramatically, swinging his arms as he walked down the room.
“Every morning we wake up at 5.30 am. They expect us to have changed, washed our face, and brushed our teeth before they get in to escort us to training at 6 am sharp. Trust me when I say you do not want to sleep in.”
He paused, reaching the last bunk bed on the right, and swirled around to face Nadia.
“What happens if you sleep in?”
Nadia’s voice came out whispered and broken, her arms safely wrapped around her chest.
“They beat you until you can barely move until you’re all bloody!”
“I am not! You can try and find out if you want. How old are you anyway?”
Kasper leaned against the metal pole of the bunk bed with a smug look on his face.
“Only Twelve, huh? Wow, Twelve AND a girl. You’re really not going to last long here. I’m thirteen, that’s a whole year of more experience, knowledge, and maturity than you or anyone else in our year.”
“Then why are you in my year and not the year above?”
“I’m not dumb, okay! It’s not like I was held back. God, you are new. You start first year training at whatever year you arrive here. Anyway…”
Kasper turned around to face the bunk, head held high, pointing at the clothes neatly folded on the upper bed’s pillow.
“Those are your pajamas. They must be folded neatly every morning. Someone will get you day clothes and training clothes for you soon.”
Nadia stood still, unsure of what to do or how to behave in this new environment, while Kasper sunk into the bottom bunk, eyes looking up to the ceiling as he tried to list off all of the things new students needed to know.
“Training is at 6 am…”
“Training for what?”
Nadia whispered. Kasper lips pursed slightly at the interruption but kept going.
“…then showers between 7.30 to 8.30 am. At 8.30 am you will have breakfast in the dining hall - I’ll show you where everything is after this…um yeah, so we have classes at 9 am and they don’t finish until supper, you will most likely have the same classes as me, and dinner is at 6 pm. 7 pm is when we are expected to study. Free time is between 8 pm to 9 pm, then it’s lights out.”
Kasper sighed looking exhausted by the share content of his briefing.
“Come on, I’ll show you around.”
He jumped up from the bed and marched dramatically back down through the room and into the hall with Nadia in tow.
Every hallway was the same, the only difference to them was the different limbs of wings and halls that cut off from them. As much as Nadia was unsure of this overly confident boy, she knew she would have to follow him around for the next few days before she memorized the building’s layout.
Every room, office, and classroom they passed the more confused Nadia became about this place. It seemed like a boarding school, with dormitories and unisex toilets, but something felt off. Way off, and she didn’t how off it was until they reached the gym.
“As you can see, this is the gym. It’s pretty big but we don’t really use it much unless the conditions outside are unsuitable. Which is almost never, seeing as they still make us train when it’s hailing.”
The room was enormous. Where there are usually stands for overseeing spectators watching students play sports or act in plays, there was just more space. Every surface area was wooden. The floors glossy with no painted lines, a thing Nadia had never seen in a school gym before. On her left was a wall covered in weapons of all types: Long sticks, sharp blades, wooden swords, metal swords, archery, and guns. Nadia’s breath caught, her eyes widening at the vast display. She reached out, shaking slightly as her fingertips hovered just over the objects, not quite willing herself to touch them.
“What is this place?”
The words came out a lot louder than she had expected, Kasper looked at her with eyebrows raised.
“This is The Institute. At least that’s what we call it. No one really knows. No teacher never mentions the name and it’s not like we have school flags or banners with our name on them.”
“What are these for?”
Nadia nodded to the rows and rows of weapons, her heart beating hard.
“To train us to fight. What else? You must not be very smart.”
Nadia ignored his insult, too fixated on the meaning behind the onslaught of weaponry.
“Why would they want to train us to fight? Is this military school?”
“Military school! I wish!”
Kasper looked at her in astonishment and went to pick up a long wooden stick, swinging it as he explained.
“This place is like…a police dog academy, we get trained young, learn to follow orders, purpose-built and engineered for a particular job.”
Kasper paused for dramatic effect, stick pointed straight at her.
“That’s why you won’t last very long.”
“I will too!”
“Girls are weaker than men, it's just a fact. And if you’re weak here, then you die here.”
Kasper pretended to stab himself in the stomach, his face contorting into a mess of overacted anguish and pain.
“That’s not true! Stop lying.”
“I’m not lying…”
All of a sudden, he became serious as he stared down at her.
“They only want strong recruits. Each year, very scary looking people come here from all over the world. They scout out and buy the top students, from the ages 15 to 18. That’s why this place trains us so hard, and if you can’t handle it or can’t keep up, you die.”
Nadia’s eyes widen, her breath held as she took in Kasper words.
“Who buys the students?”
“Governments, mostly. People who don’t want anyone knowing about them or their ‘operations,’ not even their own country. They call them ‘shadow agencies.’ Every big country has one. That’s why I am going to be the best. Two more years and I’m out of here!”
“I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!”
Nadia’s chest fell fast and hard. She could hear the blood pump through her veins as she tried to register what he was saying. He couldn’t be telling the truth; students don’t die at school, not even at military schools. It wasn’t true. It just couldn’t be.
“Quit saying that! I’m not lying. Why do you think we are here, on a remote island in the middle of nowhere? This place doesn’t belong to any country. Just grow up!”
Nadia just wanted things to be how they use to be, to have a family again. The mix of emotions all surfaced into a rage. Nadia yanked the stick from Kasper’s unsuspecting hands and swung hard, hitting him square in the jaw.
She ran as fast as she could back through the doors and into the corridor, but not fast enough to avoid the crying screams of Kasper as he lay crumpled, clutching his face.