“I’m in.” Suspended from a cable affixed to the exterior of a 30th story Tokyo penthouse, Blake confirms her position via headset. She detaches the D-ring from her harness and enters through the window.
“Copy that. This is Dowager. Recover the stolen data in his possession and retrieve the artifact. Your target is Leif Ludgen, founder...”
“I know. Founder of one of the most prominent tech companies and creator of some of the most advanced algorithms. I cited him in my dissertation. What did he do?”
“Besides a significant portion of his creations being someone else’s work, a company we shield discovered he had compromised one of their interns. It would’ve gone unnoticed, but we had eyes on the situation well beforehand. Quite unfortunate—exchanging source code for opportunities that never came.”
“Exactly. Never believe that ‘resume builder’ line. It’s just another way to say ‘Smile when I use you,’” Blake curtly replies, hastily searching her way through Leif’s penthouse.
Dowager laughs, “It would be ridiculous to accuse him of stealing something he already had access to. At least until whatever he was working on was completed. By then it would have signatures from both companies and appear they were engaged in counter-sabotage. They’d be crippled by the time the courts sorted through everything. Not to mention the witch hunt within.”
“Tell me about it. We cautioned them against hiring anyone unvetted, but they considered working with such a high-profile individual too great an opportunity.”
“And that’s why we took measures. Several companies associated with the project would’ve fallen. Two of them ours; one with a vested interest.”
“Typical. But that’s odd, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“For more than one company in an incident to be ours.” Blake replies and instantly interrupts herself, “Found it. Thumb drive encased in a crystal paperweight?”
“That’s the one. Ensure no other copies exist and destroy any remaining signatures.”
“Already on it.”
Dowager accompanies, “Cloud open… Scanning penthouse… Securing all data... Oh, that’s a nice encryption. Got it. Say my name!”
“Done. Everything will be here for you in the morning.”
“I love it when you’re thorough.” Blake jokingly commends her.
“Leif should awaken shortly. Secure the artifact. It’s time for this piece of our history to come home.”
“In all thine ways, be wyse. Dowager out.”
Blake shifts her attention to locating the artifact. She notices a partially hidden metal and glass curio at the far corner of Leif’s bedroom just as he begins to stir. She removes a slender chrome tube, slightly larger than the width of an ink pen, from the lining of her boot and checks her equipment. Blake walks toward the curio and sees the artifact. She reverently genuflects before it, opens the door, and removes a flattened padded case from the bodice of her black tactical gear. She gently lifts the delicate object and carefully nestles it within the case. Groggy, Leif awakens just as she secures it to her body. He wipes his eyes, straining them to focus on the Asian woman in his room. He starts from his bed, then stops just as abruptly. His eyes bulge at the sight of the red charm dangling from Blake’s wrist, just as much from the weapon pointed at him.
“Consider yourself fortunate. But, this is the only warning you will ever receive. Thou shalt not steal!” Blake sternly reprimands him and quickly exits the window. Leif rushes from his bed, but falls to the floor, partly entangled in his sheet. Stumbling to get up, he frees himself in time to see Blake zip line to a waiting helicopter at the next building.
Heather, a sixth grader at Visitation Academy, has been sitting off to the side. She looks up from her history book and towards the field at her classmates in gym class.
“Jonathan! Get the ball!”
“I am, Ms. Stewart! I was trying, but I just couldn’t catch it.”
“What a loser! Ever heard of a boy that couldn’t play ball?” a group of girls nearby giggle.
“I heard if he didn’t watch them, he’d trip over his own two feet.”
“All right, ladies. That means you too, boys. Head to the locker rooms and freshen up before your next class.”
“We always lose when he’s on our team!” an obviously disappointed boy says and stomps his foot.
Another student nods in agreement. But a third takes sympathy on Jonathan, sniffs himself and a boy standing next to him, then pinches his nose.
“Phew! You need to freshen up. Quit yakking and hurry up,” and takes off. The others immediately chase after him; their attention now diverted to being first to the showers.
Somewhat relieved, Jonathan lifts his head, but one by one, the remaining boys brush against him as they leave the field. Jonathan sighs heavily. Again with head down, he walks over to his Phys-Ed teacher and hands her the ball.
“I really tried, Ms. Stewart. I’m just not good at sports. I wish I was, but I’m just not!”
“Keep trying Jonathan. I’m sure you’re good at other things. One day you may be good at this, too. Now hurry on.” She smiles and tousles his hair.
Just then, the same group of giggling girls from earlier, cross directly in front of Jonathan, causing him to drop his gear and towel.
“See, I told you,” says the seventh grader in the group, “He trips over his own two feet!”
“To the locker room now, Sara!”
“Yes, Ms. Stewart!” Startled, she and the other girls scurry off.
Heather quickly ties her shoes, tosses her books into her book bag, and heads over to Jonathan.
“You’ve improved a lot since last time.” She helps him gather his things, then takes his towel, and gently wipes the sweat from his eyebrow. “Don’t give up ok? I’m sure you’ll get it.” She adjusts his glasses, hands him back his towel, and darts off toward the girls’ locker room, leaving him blushing and speechless.
Just then, several of the same boys heckling him earlier yell, “Johnny’s got a girlfriend! Johnny’s got a girlfriend!”
“I do not!” Jonathan shouts back and runs toward the locker room, even more red-faced, but confident.
Heather makes it to the locker room just ahead of the girls from earlier. She hears them approaching and quickly tosses her book bag off to the side. Upon entering the locker room, she notices a horizontal bar overhead, positioned between the first set of lockers and the door. Heather peeks out to see the order the girls are walking in, then swiftly perches herself atop the bar and waits. Sara, the seventh grader with a habit of mercilessly teasing other students, not just Jonathan, is last to enter. As soon as she clears the door, Heather uses the bar as a trapeze, and swings from her legs. She firmly grabs Sara’s long ponytail, and loops it through the hinge of the door, raising Sara to her tippy toes. Heather lands right outside the locker room door and quickly retrieves her book bag. None the wiser to Heather’s presence, the other girls struggle to free Sara between sporadic outbursts of pain from the door repeatedly hitting her in the face. Heather pauses for a brief, but satisfying glimpse before turning the corner and continuing to class.
“Good Morning, IHT Global. How may I help you?”
“Good Morning, IHT Global. Can you hold please?”
“Good Morning…” Blake overhears as she steps through the doors of IHT Global, the world’s oldest global management consultancy and woman-owned corporation. With offices on four continents, its consultants can meet the needs of an impressive and demanding clientele from any location, at any time.
The office is abuzz with new interns—candidates selected before graduating from Visitation Academy, who have successfully completed gap year, and are now returning to receive their initial designations and assignments. Should all go well, their training will continue and the black umbrella they carry emblazoned with IHT’s logo, will become red bearing insignia of a different type. If not, IHT will still have gained new highly competent consultants, and continue its reputation for excellence through them.
Blake, now dressed in all black office attire except for the red umbrella she carries, departs from her usual hurried pace, and pauses on the way to her office to take in the familiar scene. Gladys, an African-American woman in her mid-twenties, and handler for last night’s mission, sees her across the lobby standing near one of the marble columns. Taking advantage of Blake’s uncharacteristic lapse in motion, Gladys heads over to her, passing clients seated in the waiting area. Some have spread files over the travertine marble tables, poring over them while on last-minute phone calls. The panoramic view screen, seemingly suspended in air against a glass backdrop, has garnered the attention of others—their gaze affixed to world news, market updates, and rotating welcome messages from the leadership at each of IHT Global’s five regional offices. A mosaic marble IHT logo is inlaid into the center of the lobby’s floor. Its beveled letters are of uniform height with the exception of a more prominent ‘H’ atop the canopy of a black umbrella with red interior. And although Gladys has walked across it many times, she never ceases to admire it.
“I always forget how tall you are,” says Gladys, now standing next to Blake. “Feels like yesterday, huh?”
“Exactly. Has it been that long?”
“Nope. Probably longer.” They both laugh.
Gladys nods towards the interns, “I hear several are candidates for the Daughters of Jael.”
“Really?” Delighted, Blake turns to take another look at them as she and Gladys walk. “A new group of defenders for the sisterhood. I hope they’re ready to step into their places.”
“Me, too. We’ve been at this a long time, but there’s still much more to do. It’s harder to restore something when no one even realizes it’s lost.” Gladys sighs. “Any way. They reported directly to Society headquarters, just ahead of the delegations arriving for the centennial.”
“That’s right! Another hundred years under the umbrella. It will be amazing to have so many of us in one place. I wonder what the transition will bring.”
“No telling. I just hope it brings us closer to fulfilling Eve’s mandate. And office hours. You know, like everyone else.”
“Office hours? How boring, but good luck with that,” Blake teases.
“Keeping hope alive. But, good work last night. As usual. Find anything interesting?”
“Other than he smiles crookedly when he sleeps? No, not a thing.”
A woman seated at the head of the table, and several older gentlemen, occupy a conference room to the left. A younger man stands behind the men at the opposite end; a younger female, behind the woman seated at the head. Blake sees a red umbrella bearing insignia on the table in front of the woman and does a double-take. “No, it can’t be…” As she and Gladys pass by, the woman smiles at them then pushes a button, causing the glass to go from crystal clear to an opaque frosted white.
“Did you see her umbrella?!” Blake asks Gladys, more for confirmation than if she saw it.
“No! But was that…?” Gladys asks, then interrupts herself. “Oh! Before I forget, take a breather while you can. Madison is due back shortly. She wants to see you.”
Blake abruptly stops walking; her face pales.
“Wait, Madison? Entrusted, Madison Sentaire? Why does she want to see me? I completed the assignment exactly as instructed. Nothing went wrong! I mean, of course, I want to meet her. I’m just wondering why she wants to meet me. Who wouldn’t want to meet her? I’m just glad we’re on the same side and I want to keep it that way. Wait—she knows we’re on the same side, right?”
Gladys laughs heartily. “Nothing like seeing ice melt. I don’t know why she wants to meet you. What I do know is that she likes getting to know sisters, herself. I’d just assume your number randomly came up.”
“Yeah and some of those sisters don’t return. Hey! You weren’t being funny with the ‘number’s up’ comment were you?”
Gladys laughs. “Of course not. You’ll just have to wait and see,” Gladys pauses. “But if you don’t come back, I’ll know your number really was up.”
Blake playfully punches Gladys’ arm. They continue their exchange down the corridor, barely avoiding Lucille Hanway, CEO of IHT Global, headquartered in North America, who is reviewing a file in one hand, periodically twirling her umbrella with the other. Lucille arches her eyebrow and greets them by name without looking up and suspends the umbrella mid-twirl; bringing it to rest upon her shoulder. The umbrella’s color and insignia draws their attention, along with the sunbeam that has broken through the skylight to dance upon it.
Blood red it was, and an almost unnatural hue at that. The sun bounced off each of the seven bevel gemstones inlaid into a weighted fabric of superior quality. Forming the shape of a cross, they stretch across two heavily embroidered ‘W’s—one cursive, the other in standard type, lain over its middle peak, both threaded in gold. The umbrella had worn well over time, retaining its color; its stitching and ribs intact. Its nose cap, engraved with Lucille’s initials and identification number, and collar with the symbol of an umbrella, surrounded the smoothed curved teak wood handle. The light caressing the umbrella’s various points caused Blake and Gladys feel as if they could touch the Society’s history from their time in the present. Only seven such umbrellas exist within the Society. To carry one meant they were Wyse Women—governing elders of The Red Umbrella Society, sworn protectors of all Eve’s daughters; each, presiding over an IHT regional office, except two that always remain at large.
Wyse Women were usually legacies, some by several generations, and thus intimately familiar with the Society’s history. But, becoming wyse is about commitment, loyalty to the Sisterhood, sacrifice because of it; never succession. And once the designation Wyse is bestowed, being entrusted with setting the direction of the Society, determining how best to handle threats against Eve’s daughters, and reclaiming a history few know exist. It was the Wyse Women who elected to call women inside the organization, ‘Daughters’, a cherished position denoting attachment; rather than member, devoid of relationship. Yet, though Daughters, there are limits. Everything must be weighed in light of the Society’s creed; justified by its tenets. Sometimes, for the sake of sisterhood, they might turn a blind eye. Other times, they must pluck it out.
“Good Morning, Ma’am. May you always be wyse.” Gladys and Blake bow from the waist to greet her.
Lucille reads the file a moment longer before acknowledging them further and removing her glasses. Appearing much younger than her sixty-five years, Lucille has a well-manicured appearance, confident gait, and wears her shoulder length hair classically flipped and parted to the side. The umbrella before Blake now, confirms the one she had seen on the conference room table.
“Good work, Blake. I briefed our clients earlier.” Lucille removes an envelope from the file and hands it to her. “They offer their apologies.”
Blake peeks inside the envelope and smiles.
Just then, Madison walks up. She greets Lucille, right hand over her heart and bows from the neck. Blake and Gladys greet Madison in the same manner.
“May you always be wyse, Lucille.”
Lucille nods. “Well, I am off. I leave the rest in your hands, Madison. You and Blake have much to discuss, no?”
All three bow as she leaves.
Madison switches her umbrella to her left hand and faces Blake.
“I am Madison. Walk with me.”
The color drains from Blake’s face. She dutifully nods and falls instep to Madison’s right. Blake glances back at Gladys. Gladys mouths to her, “Better you than me,” heading back to her office in the opposite direction. But before she gets out of earshot,
“Oh, and Gladys? Tell no one Blake is with me. Understood?”
Gladys tenses, “Understood.”
As they walk, Blake wonders again if her number may really be up.
“Tell me, Blake. What is your understanding of our Society?”
“Sorry, Sister Carmencita. I didn’t see you.”
“Rushing to class, Heather?”
“You show much promise.”
“Thank you, Sister Carmencita. I really enjoy my classes.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
Heather stops walking, almost afraid to turn around.
“Tell me, child. What made you do that?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Sister Carmencita.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Heather hesitates, wanting to choose her words carefully, but not admit to anything. What if she got suspended? Or kicked out? She might finally be placed with a family, but if she messes up now, that could all be over. She silences her thoughts and turns toward Sister Carmencita, “Am I in trouble?”
“Far from it. In fact, you could not be in better company. You will find you’re among family here if you so decide.”
“Family, Sister Carmencita? But I don’t have a family. My mom and...” Heather rambles.
“Go to class. And look for changes to your schedule next week.”
“Yes, Sister Carmencita,” Heather uneasily replies; unsure what to expect.
“And, Heather, from now on I will be watching over you, not watching you. Do you know the difference?”
Heather looks at her inquisitively. “Yes. I think so.”
“Good.” Sister Carmencita reassuringly places her hand on her shoulder and adjusts Heather’s collar, pinning a small gold filigree umbrella on her left lapel.
Heather reaches the end of the hallway just as the bell rings. Before going in, she looks back toward Sister Carmencita, touches the pin on her collar and smiles. Sister Carmencita returns the smile and walks away. Heather enters the classroom, taking a seat two rows over from Jonathan who upon seeing her, immediately blushes.