“Jesus, where’d all these people come from?” Kate asked as she looked from behind the curtain.

Troy combed his sparse field of hair with an unbreakable, dime-store comb. In between the fourth and fifth stroke, he replied to her, “Why, they’re all here for you, Toots!”

Kate gritted her teeth. She despised the little monikers Troy gave her: Toots, Babe, Missy, Doll. He must have thought he was “cool” when he did that. “Cool,” like a 1940’s crime novel where he was a Humphrey Bogart private dick dealing with a dame who didn’t know that the grifter she fell head over heels for was putting her behind the eight ball. Or, whatever smattering of hip, hardboiled detective slang would be appropriate if he lived in a noir fantasy world.

As a matter of fact, Troy was nothing at all like a suave, gritty Bogart detective. He certainly didn’t look like one, either. If anything, he looked more like Danny DeVito’s little brother with a fetish for pizza grease.

No, Troy was Kate’s agent. And Kate was an author. She had penned her autobiography chronicling her 26-year stint in the Marine Corps. Much to her shock and awe, her novel instantly became a smash hit. A few moonstruck reviewers spoke highly of her simple, yet detailed style. One reviewer compared her work to that of Tom Clancy and John Grisham (to which her opinion of the assessment was a skeptical yeah, right). Only month after the book was released, it shot up to number one on the New York Times’ best seller list. Her face was everywhere online and plastered on busses, billboards, benches, and anywhere else there was a blank spot. But despite her newfound fame, she kept herself solidly grounded. Who’da known I’d be so big time, she thought to herself. Definitely not me.

But Troy did. She appreciated and admired Troy’s work ethic. After taking one look at her manuscript, he transformed, Michael-Bay style, into a marketing juggernaut. He convinced Perkins and Macintosh, the second-largest publisher in New York, to commit her work to print. His connections in the literary review world made sure everyone had Kate Anders on their minds and bookshelves. He was talking on his cellphone nonstop and pressing flesh 24/7. Kate wondered if he ever went to the bathroom at any point.

To continue the barrage of promotions, he brought her here to her very first appearance, a press conference. A huge press conference. People crammed with all manner of video and recording device to document for posterity anything and everything she would utter. And it made her nervous as hell.

She was able to get through the first time she had to kill another human being. She kept it together when some shit-brick in Mogadishu threw a can of tear gas through the tent flap and she found the gas masks for everyone. She kept her head on her shoulders when, in Aleppo, she bent down to pick up a toothpick, and stood up to see only half of a Marine infantryman standing in front of her. She had been through smoke and blood, and remained solid as a rock.

But the only thing that ever got her rattled was standing in front of a group of people and speaking to them. This one stupid, moronic fear made the Bitch of the Devil Dogs want to hide under her blanky and whine for her mommy. And it really tightened her jaw.

She felt a hand jiggle her shoulder, and it gave her a start. “Hey, Gal, don’t be nervous. It’s going to be fine. You’ll be fine! And I’ll be right there with you, every step of the way, Sweetheart.” Gaahd, stop it with the patronizing labels! You know I have a name! Use it already! She sighed and gave him a half-assed smile. Returning the smile with all the sentience of mud, Troy straightened his collar, leaving her to wildly dance on pins and needles as she waited in the wings.

Troy sauntered from behind the curtain onto the stage. As he waddled up to the podium with a swagger, he gestured to the huge scoop of journalists. “Everyone, settle. Settle down. Time to start.” He paused as the loud bustling calmed to a soft rumble. “Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Troy DeUnto, agent extraordinaire to autobiographers everywhere!” Unaware of the chirping-cricket response to his rhyme, he beamed as he intrepidly held the lapels of his jacket like a pint-sized P.T. Barnum. “Allow me to introduce an amazing soldier gal whose military exploits have touched everyone’s heart.” He swept his hand out to the side of the stage. “Retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Kate Anders, author of ‘Where My Souls Have Tread!’”

Kate squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. She forced herself to emerge from the curtains with a professional stance that she hoped hid her overwhelming urge to run like a scalded dog. She peered across the room, and her eyes flew wide open in surprise at the standing ovation. Oh, great; no pressure here. She took two uneasy steps forward, and nearly jumped out of her skin when the boisterous and familiar bark of OO-AH! exploded from the back of the room. Okay, she thought with relieved amusement, looks like a few fans showed up, too. With each subsequent step to the podium, her shoulders relaxed, her head lifted, and she genuinely smiled. Perhaps Troy was right–these people were here for her!

She took her place behind the podium and gratefully addressed the room. “Thank you! Thank you all! It’s a pleasure to see so many of you here….”

With abrupt agility, Troy confiscated one of the microphones from the podium. He snipped her greeting short, she assumed, to get the dog-and-pony show going. “Okay, first question. You, in the green shirt,” and he pointed to a journalist in the front row.

“Yes, Joshua Riordan, Washington Post. Sergeant Anders,….”

She chuckled at the thought of still being called “Sergeant.” “Joshua, please, I’m Kate. Just…Kate. Hell, I just retired last year, so even though I’m back on the block, a civilian like you folks, I’ll still answer to Gunny!”

The journalists all laughed with her while some of them made quick notes. Troy gave her a happy thumbs-up, and turned back to the reporter from The Washington Post. “Okay, okay, let’s keep things rolling. What’s your question, Joshua?”

He nodded in agreement. “Kate, with the swift success of your first book, have you been approached by any studios or streaming services, like Netflix or Amazon Prime, for movie or serial show deals?”

Like a crow stealing a hawk’s kill from its mouth, Troy took the question. “Well, being the expert here on first-time authors, I can assure you, like all beginning writers, Kate will be basking in the glow of that first-novel shine.” He fleetingly glanced at her and gave her a reassuring nod. “I take care of all the complex business transactions that would bring our little soldier right out of her lane. Beside, I’m certain Kate will probably want to enjoy her time relaxing while, like, gardening or crocheting, like many ladies her age.” He smiled genially, first to the room of people, then to Kate.

But Kate was not smiling. She raised her eyebrows so high, they nearly burrowed themselves into her high-and-tight hairline. What the living hell, her brain exclaimed. Where did this come from? Okay, the name stuff I can look past. But, since when did I lose the ability to understand a contract? Hell, I read one to enter the Marines! And I’ve never mentioned dirt digging and yarn re-arranging! Taken aback, she interjected with as much tact as she could muster. “Ha, ha! Oh, Troy, you are always the joker. Actually, a Gunny is the one who gets stuff done, and that includes knowing how to wheel and deal, no matter if it’s supplies for your troops or a movie deal. As for relaxing, I’ve only retired from the Marines, not from life. Lazy is not an option. Matter of fact, I’ve already started work on a second book.” She glanced over to Troy, hoping he wasn’t fuming at her contradictions.

Troy, however, stood in place and blankly faced the audience. He appeared oblivious to both his gaffe and her correction. If anything, he seemed to be eagerly awaiting the next question.

Without his previous point-and-select confirmation, another journalist boldly stood and introduced herself. “Taylor Ross of the podcast Sapphic Wisdom. Kate, what would you say were some of your biggest challenges as a woman in the Marines?”

As Taylor Ross spoke out, Kate could swear the reporter subtly emphasized her last four words with an imperceptible nod towards Kate. Or maybe she was just imagining things.

Kate did feel that, perhaps while analyzing the reporter’s body language, she left too wide a gap in silence. Thus, without hesitation, Troy jumped in. “Well, obviously, I’m not a woman, but I sure know a lot about struggling!” Again, he was the only person in the room who found his humor funny. “But seriously, let’s think about it for a moment: of course, any woman would have problems in the military. Studies out there say that women lack the physical strength for combat. That’s not their fault; that’s just how they’re built. And, speaking of the way gals are built, we don’t even have to get into the other things, like pregnancy, PMS, and ‘that time of the month,’ do we?” He nodded knowingly to his audience. “It’s okay; us guys get it, because we all know that this is a normal, natural part of life.”

This time, her brain avalanched with ire. Holy Clusterfucking Mother of Mavis! Does he not think before he speaks? To keep from going full banshee on her agent, Kate quickly faced the podcaster directly. “Actually, if I may, the biggest challenge I had was finding the women’s latrine in Afghanistan. There weren’t any. Now, that’s a real challenge, especially after downing your first MRE of the day.” The room burst with laughter, and Kate with it. “But, for anyone worried about me or any other woman ‘cutting it,’ I can tell you this: my physical standards are the same as any other soldier. And the mental strain of combat is no different across gender-PTSD hits anyone, even people not in the military. I’ve never been pregnant, but if you’re worried about maternity time off, any physical condition will prevent you from deployment.” She paused, and shook her head. “As for menstrual issues, well, we all have hormones.” She smiled slyly. “If you like, we can talk about ‘reflex erections’ that happen in times of stress. That’s normal and natural, too.” The room tittered like a schoolroom of little girls. Laughing harder than anyone else was Taylor the podcaster.

Kate victoriously rolled her head to her agent, feeling proud of her shut-down. Unfortunately, Troy stood to the side without showing any acknowledgement of what just happened. He honestly seemed more interested in what sort of gunk was caught beneath his fingernails.

Kate growled, imagining what various objects she’d like to shove underneath his fingernails.

Before she had a chance to take a cleansing breath and dowse her anger, Troy pointed to another journalist in the group. “You, Ma’am. In the nice pants. Yeah! What’s your question for our literary GI Jane?”

A stately woman rose from her seat graciously. She answered him in a crisp British accent. “Yes. Olivia Shand of the The BBC.”

Troy, with his usual charm, interjected with, “BBC? Doesn’t that stand for Bitches Be Crazy?” Again, he laughed aloud at his self-perceived cleverness. “But, you know I’m just kidding around. Go on with your question.”

Olivia Shand smiled with the strain of a bungee cord near breaking. “Yes. Charming.” She turned her gaze directly to Kate. “Kate, you mention that, in 2001, you became the first woman in the Marines to become a MAIT, or Martial Arts Instructor-Trainer. Could you tell what this achievement meant for you?”

Before he had a chance to blurt out any more questionable expertise, Kate dashed from the podium over to Troy. She covered his mic, and looked at him with huge puppy-dog eyes. Delicately, she whispered to him, “Troy! Wait. Let’s do something special, to really wow the press.” She paused, batting her eyelashes and forcing a tiny glisten of tears. “Of course, I’ll need your help!” To emphasize her faux vulnerability, she turned her toes inward like a comically well-muscled Shirley Temple. “I just can’t do this without you!”

Self-assured, Troy tilted his head and gave her a wink. “Baby, what did I say to you? I’m here for you!”

Genuinely excited, Kate bubbled, “Great! Thanks!” Her arm shot out from the sleeve of her dress uniform as her hand deftly latched on to Troy’s microphone.

With great enthusiasm, she faced the press with her agent at her side. “Ms. Shand, thank you for your thoughtful question about “The Ethical Warriors.” As a matter of fact, not only will I recount a few of my exploits as a female martial artist trainer in the Marines, but I will also demonstrate the techniques I learned and subsequently taught.”

********************************************************************

Kate stood at the podium, daintily dabbing at a miniscule bead of sweat stealing down her temple. “I want to thank you all for attending this press conference today. I had fun, and I hope we can all do it again very soon. Please, help yourself to the complimentary refreshments we’ve set up in the lobby for you.”

At the mention of free food, the journalists nearly fell over each other as they raced for the lobby.

Kate smiled warmly as they left. She took a moment to chat with a few hangers-on and graciously signed a copy of her book for a young teenaged girl. With a touch of regret, she shooed away the rest of the people. She couldn’t tarry too long here–she had a flight to catch for another appearance tomorrow.

As she sauntered across the stage, she hooked a chair with two fingers and dragged it over to where her uncharacteristically disheveled agent sat. With a flick of her wrist, she spun the chair around so that the back of it faced him. In very same fluid, feline movement, she deftly mounted her seat and set her sinewed arms across the top of the chair’s back.

“Good work, Troy! We nailed this one!” She gave him an enthusiastic punch in the shoulder, resulting in a wince and grunt from him. “I am so impressed with your fine, manly strength! Why, you endured two whole love taps from this frail, old broad before you kissed the floor!” She looked him straight in the eye, and gave him a long, sly smile. With the provocative purr of a satisfied mountain lion holding down her trembling prey, she leaned in closer and murmured into his ear.

“I just can’t wait for tomorrow’s show!”

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