From On Fractured Ground
Chapter 1: Problem Child
He almost ran straight into her.
Ear against the door, she spun in what seemed like slow-motion at his sudden appearance. Blue-green eyes widened as waves of ebony silk swirled around her movement. Wild tresses were a violation of The Institute’s policy, which required a braid or bun. In a world where everything must be controlled, hair could be no exception.
Corbin’s professional barriers shattered the instant he recognized her.
Though she was the reason behind this visit, he came unprepared for an encounter with her. Students in the third-year sector were supposed to be studying right now. It appeared the habit of sneaking out of her quarters had not changed.
Corbin took an involuntary sharp breath as she closed in, curiosity across her beautiful face. Tentative fingertips touched the center of his chest, as if to see if he were real. spread through him at an alarming rate, his body tensing at the contact. Raising her gaze, he saw a distinct intensity blazing up from the tropical depths.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” The hand that had tested his authenticity flew to her mouth, indicating the words were unintentional.
They shocked him just the same. There's no way she remembers, he thought with distress. That's impossible.
“Get away, Child!” Mary interrupted as she came bustling down the corridor. “Shoo! Stop accosting the owner.”
The disruption brought Corbin to his senses. He scowled at the reference to his ownership of Cellar Institute.
The gruff proctor either did not notice his distaste or ignored it. She continued chastising her student, “Go put your hair up! You’re in enough trouble without finding more.”
Silent, Tylar’s eyes shifted to Corbin. He thought he glimpsed disappointment. Emotional shields reinstated, he proceeded past her and into the classroom. The quicker he completed business here, the sooner he could leave.
Disregarding the teen sitting near the polycarbonate window, Corbin claimed the proctor’s station. The position of authority eased his nerves. Disdain for trafficking women aside, this campus was a reminder of events he would rather forget. Until Tylar’s recent insubordination, Corbin had had no intention of ever revisiting this ‘reformatory’.
Registered as Cellar Institute, the secluded fortress posed as a rehabilitation facility for troubled girls. School uniforms, altered education, and isolation from society hid its true mission, producing high-end sex slaves.
The horrors of traditional human trafficking left its victims with crippling mental disorders. To monopolize the black-market, Corbin’s grandfather, Michael Manning, sought to create a ‘drama-free’ product. The Institute incorporated meticulous indoctrination to keep students naïve, submissive, and dependent without causing trauma.
Drama-free, my ass. Acidic bitterness curdled in Corbin’s stomach. This damned place brings nothing but chaos.
To solidify his unspoken assessment, Mary shoved into the room. Door slamming in her wake, she proclaimed, “That Child needs to go!”
“I doubt that will be necessary.” Straightening, he folded his hands in his lap. “Do you have a copy of her current chart?”
Mary thrust it at him.
Thumbing through, he asked, “How is her performance in class?”
Hesitation preceded the answer. “Adequate.”
Trapping her in a honey-brown glare, “Do not lie to me.”
“She has top marks,” Mary admitted. Reluctance morphed into frustration, “But book smarts are not the goal of this Institute! That girl’s only value is in the bedroom. This is the second skill trainer she’s damaged. Third, if you count Lance!”
“Lance is not an example of why Tylar should fail skills.” Not caring to peruse a falsified document, he dropped it on his knee. “Quite the opposite.”
“Keeping her here is a mistake!” Shades of red undulated across the proctor’s fair complexion, lending a frightening quality to her ice-colored eyes.
Corbin wondered if she might explode.
“I disagree,” he asserted, unwilling to sentence Tylar to expulsion. The Institute’s definition was much more disturbing than an actual school’s. “And your opinion does not belong here. I only want to hear facts.”
“The facts are she is too stubborn! Whatever your father did to fix her attitude is wearing off.”
“I was told that her seclusion a year and a half ago solved the issue.”
“It took care of the violence.” She gestured toward the kid Corbin had forgotten about, “But what about Jay?”
He glanced at Tylar’s latest victim, slumped behind a desk in the corner. Assigned as her skill trainer two weeks ago, the nineteen-year-old had allowed Tylar to intimidate him. Refusing to continue working with her, Jay became wary of his other two assignments. Unchecked, such conduct might lead students to recognize sex as power. If this spawned a ‘man-eater’, expulsion would be instant. Moreover, if Lance’s behavior made Tylar into a femme fatale, she could land at the feet of the men in black suits.
Refocusing on Mary, “So, Jay let Tylar take advantage of him. And now you consider her uncontrollable?”
On the verge of nodding, Mary reconsidered.
“Unacceptable,” Corbin’s patience slipped. Voice devoid of emotion, he announced, “Tylar stays. Go through the usual steps of reprogramming. Separate her from her peers and replace her routines with a stricter schedule. Instead of two months in the basement, leave her there until she submits to the curriculum. Prepare her for graduation.”
Finished, Corbin grabbed the folder and stood to leave.
“She’s so stubborn!” Mary repeated, stalling his escape. “She’s a predator, Corbin. Not the prey! Look at how bold she was with you.”
God, he hated her awareness of his full name. The only person with that knowledge should be the headmaster, Proctor Teri. If only his father, William Manning, had not been so careless.
Unaccustomed to being argued with, Corbin strained to reestablish indifference. “Then do your job and curb her rebellion. Charisma is allowable, it will make her more appealing.”
“As a Manning, I’m shocked you would tolerate such a thing.”
Anger flared at the comparison to the rest of his bloodline, “Enough! Tylar continues her education. End of discussion.”
Exiting before Mary commented further, he saw Tylar leaned against the adjacent wall. Pale golden skin complimented a delicate bone structure, her watercolor eyes cutting into him. A haphazard pile of raven hair showed signs of impending collapse. Tylar’s expression exhibited undeniable intuitiveness. A rare trait for someone raised within an establishment that worked to destroy insightfulness and complexity.
Once again under the force of Tylar’s penetrating inspection, cracks manifested within Corbin’s defenses. Self-directed fury surfaced at how he let the mere sight of her pierce his armor prior to the meeting. It would not happen this time. Steeling himself, Corbin matched her stare.
“You run this place,” Tylar repeated what Mary disclosed fifteen minutes earlier.
“Does that change your mind about who you thought I was?” Corbin condescended, his temperature elevating at their proximity.
Bright pink rushing up her face, Tylar tore her eyes away.
He interpreted her disinclination as a yes. Not that it mattered. To Corbin, the show of deference suggested she may be salvageable.
“Good,” he stated.
Appearing startled at the change in demeanor, Tylar searched him for answers to unknown questions.
A flash of arousal almost overwhelmed him at the taste of dominance. This woman sent fire right through him. Recalling the consequences of the last few times his carnal need took control, Corbin suppressed the excitement. A challenging task. The white blouse buttoned to the throat and black ankle-length skirt did nothing to hide her enticing curves.
Needing out before his desire could get the best of him, Corbin turned to leave. A hesitant hand grasped his shoulder, but the abrupt spin on his heel inspired its withdrawal. An aggressive stride into her inspired a timid retreat. The part of him still capable of rationality marveled at her lack of fear.
“Do not touch me,” he advised. Met with another demure response, he fought against placing his hands on her in ways the trainers only dreamt about. “Did they neglect part of your lessons? Never touch a man unless he initiates or gives his permission.”
“Men aren’t the center of the universe,” Tylar declared.
She held her ground as he moved into her once more. Close enough to smell her clean scent, Corbin observed as an obsidian lock broke free of the messy bun. On impulse, he swept it from her eyes. The pads of his fingers brushed Tylar’s temple, coloring her cheeks a deeper red. Arrogant temper was the only thing keeping the burning unrest in check. He clung to it.
“They’re the center of yours,” the retort flowed with a smoothness that defied the threat it commanded. “Especially when they hold your life in their hands.”
That got her attention. “Are you saying Mary wants me dead? Do you expect gratitude for being my savior?”
“Mary just wants you out of here,” Corbin answered, amazed at her bravado. Before she got smug he added, “However, Cellar Institute doesn’t let failed students wander the streets. Even if it did, it’s doubtful you would survive. I see potential, so I gave the order for you to remain.” Saturating his words with an earnest warning, “Do not make me regret the decision.”
This time Corbin stalked out of the enormous prison-like building without interception. As he approached the idling limousine, his chauffeur bodyguard opened the door. His head of staff slid across from him as Jimmy got behind the wheel. Corbin watched as they passed through two secured archways. Turning down a dirt alley, they sped off from Cellar Institute.
Staring at his reflection in the window, he struggled to collect himself. Black hair in slight disarray, a few rogue curls dangled over his dark brow. The tanned complexion of his jawline hinted at a five o’clock shadow. Corbin’s caramel eyes were full of intent, though his target was no longer present.
They exited the cover of trees, making a right on a wider unpaved road. The nearest neighbor to The Institute graced the side of the road a mile later. Arousal subsiding, he released a sigh of relief.
Chase seemed to pick up on Corbin’s temperament. “Rough meeting?”
Corbin nodded, then requested of the driver, “Jimmy, please roll up the privacy window.”
Corbin stuffed the counterfeit paperwork Mary gave him into his briefcase. He pulled out a similar manila folder containing an altered version of Tylar’s history. His father destroyed all evidence of her original chart years ago. Its replacement omitted her first seclusion and the circumstances leading up to it.
Months prior to William’s murder, her records underwent another amendment. This time concealing an act of defiance and a second round of isolation. Corbin handed his confidant the older documents.
Three-years Corbin’s senior, Chase stood six feet tall. He sported short, dark-blond hair and a gaze that resembled storm-tossed seas. As a teen, he had responded to a lure for a skill trainer in the help wanted section. William often bragged that he was the best The Institute had seen. Corbin recognized that the perceptiveness that made Chase an effective trainer also contributed to success as a security officer. With a knack for reading body language and dealing with difficult personalities, he shined during touchy situations.
Why William pulled Chase from the Institute remained a mystery but shortly after he was appointed as Corbin’s full-time shadow. His father even bribed the high school into allowing the nineteen-year-old to enroll in the same sophomore classes. Chase’s constant presence persisted through college and into the world of business. Continual exposure to the easygoing personality during the later years of adolescence gave way to Corbin’s only friendship. Now twenty-five, he also viewed Chase as a valuable adviser.
“What’s this?” Accepting the folder Corbin extended, Chase read the tab, “Tylar Daislea. Is this a skill trainer?”
“The only trainers involved in this mess are Adam, Lance, and Jay.”
“Then who is this guy?”
Corbin’s smile felt more like a grimace, “Tylar is female.”
“A student?” Chase complained with revulsion. “Damn it, Corbin. Please tell me you don’t want her killed for failing The Institute’s brainwashing.”
Offended he would jump to such a conclusion, Corbin demanded, “When have I ever ordered you to kill anyone?”
“Yeah, well. I can’t remember when you last came out here. Figured it must be serious. You hate this place.”
“I don’t want her killed,” Corbin clarified in a sour tone. “Will you read the damn file?”
“Alright,” Chase relented with a stiff exhale, flipping it open.
At first, he picked through the biography with general disinterest. After several minutes of skimming, Corbin noticed something catch his attention. With a frown, Chase appeared to focus on every word. The analysis lasted the rest of the way to Manning Estate, on the outskirts of SeaTac.
Finished reading, he held up the snapshot of a four-year-old Tylar. The photo dated back to when Sam Cranson delivered her to William. The longest standing member of the Manning detail, Sam was sole bodyguard to Corbin’s grandfather, Michael. Aside from the immature facial features of a child, Tylar retained the same stunning looks as an adult.
“So this cute little button raised all this ruckus?”
“Let’s finish in my study,” Corbin invited as the limo neared the entrance to his property.
The initial portion of Manning Estate had boasted a five-bedroom, three-bath upstairs with a downstairs apartment. After Michael died and William ascended to patriarch, he doubled its size to a proper compound. Self-containing studios housed a half-dozen guards, a cook, and a housekeeper. With a huge wall to split the view, the building looked balanced despite the major renovation.
Lowering the window, Corbin punched his six-digit pin into the comm box. Jimmy’s employee number could grant them access, but Corbin preferred keying his own. A red LED switched off and the massive gates swung wide. The vehicle coasted up the driveway where a gaudy fountain gurgled in the cul-de-sac.
Climbing out of the elongated car, they traversed the marble veranda. Large double doors opened to an oak foyer. Welcomed by a long hallway, its gold carpet and off-white paint also accented the majority of the common areas. The faint scent of chlorine greeted him from the poolroom on his left.
Corbin walked down the hall as Chase paused at an entryway next to the apartment on the right. The setup in that office pointed a guilty finger at William’s maddened paranoia. Monitors engulfed an entire wall, broadcasting every inch of their grounds. Keypads in each room facilitated estate-wide communication and controlled all access. No one came or went without a code unless Corbin or Chase permitted.
Overall, Manning Estate’s lockdown was not dissimilar from that of The Institute. Chase often ranted about how both systems must be black-market. Corbin dismissed these tirades as an overreaction. A technician performed upgrades and annual maintenance. No underground seller in their mind would offer a service contract on illegal products.
A substantial living area sprawled before him as he topped the stairs. 70-inches of dormant flat screen hung across from the landing, with a bedroom door on the right. At the forefront rested a coffee-hued suede sectional with matching recliners and dark-wood tables. Artwork on the walls absorbed ambient sound to prevent echoing. A corridor on the right harbored additional bedrooms and a spare bathroom.
To the left, French doors sequestered Corbin’s beloved study. Thousands of books lined built-in shelves. A sign of prestige, most predated even Michael Manning. Corbin assumed his spot behind an enormous mahogany desk that brooded in front of a wall of windows. A couple chairs sulked before his throne with a set of couches facing-off at their backs.
A degree hung above a bronze fireplace to the side of the desk, a dozen pictures surrounding. Corbin had obtained his master’s at twenty-two. First in his family to achieve past the bachelor’s program, the accomplishment meant nothing to him or his father. They both knew the added class load was a desperate attempt to avoid William’s hateful wrath. Site photos of some of Manning, Inc.’s subsidiaries encircled his diploma; images of Corner Street Drugstores, Wandering Industries, Runners Northwest, and a lone snap of an old Stop-n-Gas.
Of all seven companies, Corbin favored the drugstores. When he first went to work for corporate at fifteen, he made plans to restructure the chain. He had not expected to take over until his father’s death passed it down. To his astonishment, William abdicated Corner Street following Corbin’s twenty-first birthday.
Pulling the business out of the gutter, his impatience to acquire Manning, Inc. became unbearable. If left to flail, he knew the parent company would capsize inside five years. Lucky for Corbin, someone murdered William less than three years later. Corbin wasted no time implementing massive changes similar to Corner Street’s. He sold the gas stations and executed a hostile takeover on a series of hotels for Wandering Industries. Over the past year, he had buoyed Manning, Inc. up from the deep red William let it sink into.
In contradiction to William’s obsession, Corbin abandoned The Institute to run itself.
“Are you planning more expansion for Corner Street or taking a break to eat up the profits?” Chase inquired, noticing what held his attention as he crossed to where Corbin sat in quiet contemplation.
The question seized Corbin from recollections of his father, bringing forth a more pleasant subject.
“Didn’t you listen at the board meeting last month? We won the bid for a lot on Military Road, close to I-5.”
Chase looked surprised, indicating he had snoozed through that part of Corbin’s summary. “That’s a couple miles down the street. I take it you want to reap the benefits of owning a pharmacy?”
Not in the mood for bad jokes, Corbin narrowed his eyes, “What do you think?”
Chase got down to business. “Looks like Tylar’s problems started over a year ago with Adam, her original third-year skill trainer. You know what happened to him is a trainer’s worst nightmare, right?” Chase shuddered at the prospect of a student throwing a knee hard enough to rupture a testicle.
“The first several sessions went fine, though after the fact, Adam changed his tune. Started accusing Tylar of being uncooperative leading up to the incident,” Corbin cited from memory. “Claims he tried dealing with her on his own, instead of reporting her for reprimand or reassignment. Said he was attempting an authorized lesson when Tylar racked him. Proctor Teri was teaching down the hall when she heard him scream. Found him in the fetal position on the floor, vomiting. Tylar was sitting up with a couple buttons popped and her skirt ripped off.”
An involuntary mental picture of Tylar half-naked on a bed caught Corbin off-guard. He pushed the image from his mind before it re-invoked his desire.
“How long was he out of commission?” Chase asked.
“Over a month. Dr. Kale had to bring in a surgeon. The kid is lucky he didn’t lose a ball.”
“Wow, she nailed him.” He reflected for a minute before replying, “Adam’s story doesn’t line up. The student Tylar’s chart describes is the epitome of cooperation. I mean, she excelled through first and second-year skills in the course of a year. A year!”
“Some students complete courses early.”
“Yeah, by a few months! Satisfying a years’ worth of skills in six? Twice?” Chase shook his head. “No way.”
“So, the handlers in charge of the trainers realized she was advancing,” he reasoned, wishing for Chase to let it go.
“You don’t understand. She would have had to impress the handlers enough for them to excuse her from half of two curriculums! It’s unheard of, which makes her a goddamn unicorn. Something catastrophic must have screwed things up.”
“Adam and Mary insist he stuck to the approved training.” Corbin leaned back, disinclined to enlighten Chase of his own suspicions. His father had wiped that missing link from Tylar’s history. “Far as I know, the handlers never intervened. She was the one they punished.”
“Intervention or not, Adam must be hiding something,” Chase insisted. “She had never done it before and it hasn’t happened since. The kid they assigned after her two-month seclusion escaped without injury.”
Corbin grunted, “Gross understatement. When it came time to transfer Tylar for fourth-year, Lance begged to go with her. The Institute denied the request, so he tried to fail her. That didn’t work either and he quit.”
“Maybe what happened to Adam combined with whatever spell she cast on Lance led to what happened with Jay,” Chase mused. “Word spreads fast through those barracks. Rumors about her previous trainers probably scared him shitless. My unicorn reference is not an exaggeration. What happened with Lance is also unheard of. Assigning up to three girls at a time reduces the risk of the boys attaching to one student. The chances of one as young as him becoming obsessed like that should be next to nil.”
“That could be it,” Corbin agreed. “In any case, I have instructed Proctor Teri to stop admitting girls altogether. The underage sector will no longer graduate into skills.”
“Really?” Chase appeared caught off-guard by the declaration.
“Why are you surprised?” Corbin’s irritation rose. They discussed liquidating The Institute every time he sat down to review bids on girls in the purchasing sector.
“I just never expected you would do it,” Chase replied, still baffled. “I mean, it was your father’s favorite business. Your grandfather’s, too. In a dysfunctional sort of way, Cellar Institute is your heritage.”
“A heritage I would rather have buried,” voice dripping with resentment, “Selling women is the most fucked up scheme my family has concocted, which is saying something. My womanizing is no secret, but those women are aware that they can say no. The Institute goes above and beyond to ensure its students have no concept of consent.”
“Yeah, well, judging by what she did to Adam, I’d say Tylar figured out what consent is. At the very least, she has learned how to withdraw it.”
“She made Jay obsolete in the process of asserting herself.” Corbin shifted the subject with a subtlety he hoped Chase wouldn’t detect. “He’s no longer useful to The Institute. Can you contact Tristan and get Jay licensed as an unarmed guard?”
“Sure, but you need to come up with a solution for this. I don’t want to kill that girl.” He looked contemplative for a moment. “You should let me try.”
“You know I was an effective skill trainer, even with the difficult students. Let me work with her.”
“Why?” Corbin did not want Chase anywhere near Tylar. Not caring to say this aloud, he deflected, “You’ve never been interested in going back to your old job.”
“I’m not looking to become a skill trainer again,” Chase corrected. He exhaled with displeasure, “Unicorn or not, her reprogramming will be distasteful. She’ll need to relearn submission, which means rougher aggression lessons. Give her to the wrong guy now and she’ll end up beyond repair.” He grimaced before adding with an unenthusiastic mutter, “If she hasn’t already.”
“No,” Corbin denied.
“What else are you going to do?” Chase’s frustration surfaced at the inflexibility. “We both know those horror stories about the black suits abducting students is a fabricated scare tactic. But I can only think of one outcome if a girl flunks that shitshow. I have never harmed a woman. I sure as hell don’t plan to start by killing this eighteen-year-old. There is a good chance whatever started all this wasn’t even her fault!”
Corbin stewed in silence. He warned Tylar that her rebellion could lead to fatality, though he left out the men in black suits. The act of ordering a young woman’s murder was horrifying. He did not want to demand Chase or Jimmy carry out such an atrocity.
“Look, by sacrificing a year of my time, we have a better chance of saving her.”
“You’re too old to be a skill trainer,” Corbin contended, reluctant to agree.
“At least she’s a legal adult! If not me, then you’re going to have to give her to one of those boys. And you better believe every last one of them knows she’s been the downfall of three of their buddies. That’s a bad idea.”
“I’ll think about it,” Corbin conceded with reluctance. “In the meantime, Proctor Teri is hiring a new skill trainer. There are still students who need training completed before I can walk away from that dumpster fire. I never want to be faced with this mess again.”