Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood & Bourbon
Gemma "Princess" Bernard
Jailhouse rock bodyguard & pay-per-view prizefighter
“Never go to bed angry–stay up and fight.”
“If you can’t go back to your mother’s womb, you’d better learn to be a good fighter.”
“Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open.”
“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.”
“Sure the fight was fixed. I fixed it with a right hand.”
She’s not happy. Not at you. Not at the world. Might not ever have been. Even if the black woman had cause to smile, she wouldn’t. Too few teeth from too many bare-knuckle fights. As she once said before a pay-per-view cage-match, “Ain’t no point in a mouth-guard if you ain’t got no mouth left to guard.”
She’s tall, taller than most grown men, with long arms begging you to give them an excuse to throw a chin-shattering punch or elbow. Probably both. Then there’s her legs. Longer still, but not the kind a man might leer at. No, they’re the kind a kickboxer would use to sweep your legs or smash in your teeth. Probably both.
Despite the spice factory her mama worked at, there’s nothing Creole about her. She’s black. Skin like dried toilet-bowl skid-marks. Scars on her arms, stomach, and hands like a reused autopsy dummy. Lean frame with muscles where it counts–so long as you’re tallying points at a cage-match, not beauty pageant.
She keeps her lusterless pitch-hued hair pulled back. Out of her eyes and business-like. Particularly the business of hurting people. Although she prefers hurting others with her fists, elbows, knees, and feet, she’s always armed with at least one concealed carry pistol: a perk of her prior felony being downgraded to a misdemeanor. She favors tank tops and shorts, but when called for, she throws on a suit that fits her body but not soul. Either way, she prefers dark colors. After all, if she breaks your nose or knees you in the gut, your blood or vomit will stand out less if it gets on her. Otherwise, she’d have to waste time changing. She’s practical that way. Practical as a crowbar. Good at getting things and people to open up–or shutting them down. For good.
If there’s anything sentimental about her, it’s the necklace around her neck, a simple chain and round locket. What’s inside? She doesn’t say. Best not to ask, either, if you like your bones where they are.
Name: Gemma Princess White Bernard
Date of Birth: January 29th, 1980
Date of Ghouling: November 21st, 2011
Apparent Age: 31
Real Age: Mid-30s
Eye Color: Brown
Hair Color: Black
On the sixth season’s finale episode of Mega Cage, Gemma Bernard best summed up her checkered past–and future–by saying, “Fightin’s in ma blood, an’ it ain’t goin’ nowheres.”
When the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 collapsed the levées near Melville, Gemma Bernard’s ancestors fought over 5,700 other refuges to carve out a space for themselves in the fellow St. Landry city of Opelousas. There, they fought segregation first as part of the Holy Ghost parish, and then as his great-grandfather tried out for the local (non-Negro) minor league baseball franchise, the Opelousas Indians. He naturally wasn’t allowed to play with the white baseballers, but his gumption got him and his sons work as the franchise’s groundskeepers.
When the Indians called it quits in 1941, Gemma’s grandfather, Tomas, enlisted to fight the Nazis, managed to out-survive the Third Reich, and re-enlisted five years later to fight the communists in Korea. Once more, he survived, and once more, he decided he wasn’t yet done fighting. Namely, he worked as a bare-knuckle prize fighter in Sheriff Cat Doucet’s gambling halls along Highway 190. When the pro-civil rights, anti-segregation, but also embezzling, pimping sheriff retired in 1968, Tomas opened a gym, right across from Savoie’s cajun meatpacking plant. There, the war vet trained black boxers who dreamed of becoming the next Tom Molineaux or Bill Richmond. Tomas taught not only those legends’ bare-knuckle fist-fighting style of cutting, but also incorporated elements of Savate (which he had learned while liberating Vichy France) and Tang Soo Do (courtesy of South Korean allies).
Among his students was Douglas King Bernard, his youngest son and Gemma’s father. Douglas’ training made him skilled enough, but not wise enough, to beat up an entire pickup truck of white Cajun boys who frequently drove around Opelousas to go “nigger-knocking” by throwing rocks at Black girls and boys walking home from Catechisms. Despite this occurring 20 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Douglas obtained an unsympathetic jury of peers–all of which were on the other side of the color line–and was sentenced to 15 years at Angola. As a consequence, Gemma’s mother was forced to support her family of 11 kids by working double and sometimes triple shifts at the nearby Chachare Original Creole Seasoning shipping warehouse.
Learning to Fight
Gemma, meanwhile, was tasked with taking care of her family’s chickens and her aged paternal grandfather, Tomas. When Gemma came home from school with too many black eyes, Tomas reluctantly taught her how to defend herself. Initially, she proved to be a better student than her father–not only quicker but also smarter, as she seemed to better understand Tomas’ adage that “a real fighter’s gotta be knowin when’s to punch, an when’s not to.”
That admonition, though, was tested in ’96, when Douglas was released early on parole. He returned ‘home’, hoping to surprise his family, only to find another man sleeping in ‘his’ bed with ‘his’ wife (even though she had divorced him a decade prior). Initially, Douglas vented his ire solely on the man who had cuckolded him, but he soon turned on his ex-wife. Violently.
Waking up to her mother’s screams, the then-16-year-old Gemma burst into the room and attempted to defend her mother, not knowing that it was her father she was punching and kicking. When Douglas realized the identity of his own assailant, he backed off and left the house, only to come around when his ex-wife wasn’t around, attempting to rekindle a relationship with his estranged children. In Gemma’s case, those attempts included him trying to bond over pugilism, with Douglas lauding her skills while also showing her new Jailhouse Rock moves he picked up at the Farm. Gemma was conflicted, as she harbored more than one grudge against her felon father, but also missed having a paternal figure in her life (especially as Tomas had died a few years prior and she considered her mother’s boyfriends to be weak, disinterested, or too interested in her).
Thus, when Douglas tried to reopen his father’s long-closed gym a few years later, Gemma agreed to help, particularly as she had no real interest in high school or chicken-farming. The local KKK, however, had other plans–plans that didn’t include a black felon resurrecting a “radical black national militia-training organization pretending to be a business”. Thus, one night while Douglas and Gemma were repairing the gym, the Klan showed up in full white robe regalia and burning crosses staked to the yard. Douglas, claiming he recognized several of the Klan members as the now-grown Cajun boys he beat up pre-Angola, charged out into the yard. Gemma, fearing the mob and hearing Tomas’ words in her heart if not mind, did not.
Picking the Wrong Fight
Douglas’ corpse was found 14 miles away, laying in a ditch along Highway 190, rope marks around his neck and signs of being dragged to death behind a pickup truck. Police ‘inquiries’ were made, but no arrests occurred. Guilt-stricken and enraged, Gemma attempted to take justice into her own hands, as she too was fairly sure she recognized one of the Klansmen tht night. Not only was he a former “nigger-knocker” involved with her father’s arrest, but he drove a Dukes of Hazard orange pick-up truck that happened to be parked across the street on that ill-fated night. His name was Gilbert Goudeau. Deacon Gilbert Goudeau of the local St. Landry Catholic Church.
Nursing said suspicions, Gemma broke into Gilbert’s house and beat the man until he confessed his involvement in her father’s murder. By the time she broke him (and lots of him), Gilbert gushed his guilt, and even continued doing so in front of the cops (who had been summoned by Gilbert’s wife). His testimony, however, was considered legally inadmissible as it occurred “under duress”. Gemma, meanwhile, got no leniency for her crime–especially once the Lafayette and more distant news cables sensationalized her assault of a clergyman and subsequent trial¬–with prosecutors as well as media suggesting she might have killed her father.
Like her father before her, Gemma received a 15-year sentence, though as a woman, she was shipped not to the Farm, but rather the multiple-security Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) in St. Gabriel. Compared to the other 985 inmates, Gemma’s imprisonment was rather unremarkable–which is to say, hellacious. Gangs. Crooked guards. Drugs. Fights with inmates. Sexual harassment. Sometimes she was the victim, sometimes the victimizer. Her pugilistic skills helped limit the former, while aiding the latter.
After a decade, her quotidian (if horrific) routine was demolished by RED Network’s pay-per-view show, Mega Cage. Its producers, keen on maintaining the show’s cashflow (if not moral pollution), decided to “spice up” the sixth season and its vicious no-holds-barred cage fights by featuring the show’s first fights between female inmates. Moreover, the season greatly expanded its ‘competitor spotlights’ with extended interviews with participating inmates, cellmates, victims, and family members; archival trial coverage and reanalysis by RED Network’s talking heads; recorded psychotherapy sessions and post-session analysis by Mega Cage’s paid mental health experts; and premium access “realer than real” footage where viewers could follow around their favorite (or favorite to hate) competitors 24/7 as they ate, got dressed, showered, worked out, underwent strip searches, toileted, had sex with cellmates, and got into (totally arranged, er natural) prison-yard scuffles between ‘matches’. It was like UFC, Cops, the Bachelor had a baby. An ugly, shameless, violent, grotesquely sensationalized baby.
Much to Gemma’s ‘luck’, her prison was chosen as the venue for the season, which was dubbed, St. Gabriel’s Bitchslap!
Like many of LCIW’s inmates, Gemma initially tried to avoid becoming part of the spectacle. But the show’s producers–in conjunction with LCIW’s warden–made most of the inmates ‘offers they couldn’t refuse’. Such offers included minor carrots, like all-you-can-eat Herricks’ pudding cups, brought in meals from O’Tolley’s, Circinus cigarettes, a makeover from a Pangloss-sponsored esthetician, a case of Blue Stripe beer, extra conjugal visits (recorded of course), finer ply toilet paper, and lighter work duties. Refusing such offers brought the stick: extra work details, rough(er) ‘random’ cavity searches, more frequent bed shakedowns, prison cafeteria food spiked with laxatives, negative testimonies at parole hearings, block-enemies just happening to find shivs underneath their pillows, and worse. But for Gemma and her peers, the most attractive benefit of ‘volunteering’ for the show was the season’s grand prize: all-expenses paid access to a high-profile criminal defense team that could aid with an appeal of the inmate’s conviction or similar legal action. That prize, however, only went to the final bout ‘champion’ of the season’s elimination-bracket (which facilitated copious online betting–sponsored, of course, by RED Network).
Gemma won that prize. Some might even say she killed for it.
Amongst the many opponents Gemma faced and bloodily defeated, the most notorious were Aimée Talbert and Renee Franklin.
The first was an elementary school teacher’s aide from the small town of Mathews in Lafourche Parish. Two years prior to the ‘show’, Aimée had been convicted of first-degree murder of her 9-year old daughter, 7-year old autistic son, and family dog in an act of revenge against her ex-husband, whom had divorced her and become engaged to another woman. Aimée quickly became a season favorite, as not only was she an exceptionally attractive white woman (amongst primarily ugly black women), but the details of her crime and related ‘all-exclusive’ interviews were by themselves fit for prime-time. Consistent with testimony from her trial psychiatrist, she related how her daughter had begged for her life. Grisly court evidence showed that both children had defensive wounds to their hands and arms, with the daughter having 30–35 stab wounds to her torso and 30 to the head, while her son had 50–55 stab wounds to his torso, about 30 to the front, and 20–25 to the back. Aimée also had self-stabbed herself about 30 times in the abdomen, chest, neck, and wrists, after writing two suicide notes. Later she had confessed to her correctional psychiatrist that “Satan was in the room laughing at me”. For those crimes, she had been sentenced to two sequential life sentences without the possibility of parole.
The second was a former NOPD officer convicted of three counts of first degree murder. Despite being caught lying multiple times on her NOPD application, failing two standard psychiatric evaluations, and the NOPD psychiatrist advising “in no uncertain terms against her hiring”, Renee had been inducted into the NOPD as part of its 1993 “Black is the New Blue” initiative. During the show, interviews with her former officers related that Renee “had no idea what police work really entailed, lacked the decisiveness to be a good officer, and veered into irrational behavior”. Within a year of joining the force, her ex-supervisors had tried to send Renee back to the academy and made her go through multiple supervisory reviews (even as she won the Kiwanis Club’s Officer of the Month award).
Yet, things had really devolved for the rookie cop a year later when she had interviewed a drug dealer and drive-by shooter Lamar Rogers, became smitten by the “bad boy”, developed a sexual relationship with him, let him drive her police car, and jointly pulled over motorists and robbed them while in her squad car. Such criminal behavior reached its climax a year later, when Renee had robbed a Vietnamese restaurant, fatally shot two teens and a fellow NOPD execution-style, and then returned to the scene of the crime, posing as a responding officer while attempting to murder the witnesses who had called 911.
Subsequently, Renee had the infamous ‘honor’ of being the first NOPD officer to be officially charged with murdering a fellow officer. During her trial–which Mega Cage gladly played in a sensationally edited form–the investigating officer, one Detective Lebeaux, had described Renee as “the most cold-hearted person” he’d ever encountered in his decade as an officer. With Renee’s attorney not calling a single witness in her defense, the jury had taken only 22 minutes to render her guilty on all charges, and only another 45 more minutes to recommend the death penalty. As a result, she became the only woman currently on Death Row in Louisiana. A decade later, she still held that title, and the DA didn’t even bother prosecuting her for murdering her father after the NOPD discovered his skeleton, complete with a ballistics-matched bullet in the skull, in Renee’s pre-conviction attic.
Suffice it to say, a lot of Mega Cage’s audience looked forward to both murderers getting a bloody comeuppance–even as others clearly loved cheering for what were arguably the season’s ‘star villains’. The drama only escalated when the show’s producers began to find (or force) connections between Gemma, Aimée, and Renee. Some of these were minor, such as Gemma, prior to her father’s death, had gone by her middle name (i.e., “Princess), which just happened to be the name of the dog had Aimée killed alongside her children. Other connections were more significant if still indirect, such as Gemma and Renee both being born and raised in Opelousas, with shared extended family history.
And others were downright suspicious, like Aimée being moved early in the season to share Gemma’s cell, as if the producers wanted to set them up as a couple–or ultimate rivals. Further evidence of that setup was that their ‘brackets’ were arranged to not collide till the end of the season. If either knew they were being set up, neither seemed to mind. Gemma gave Aimée tips on how to fight, and sometimes ‘accidentally’ tripped, kicked, elbowed, or headbutted Aimée’s opponents in the cafeteria or prisonyard, injuring them so they became easy pickings during cage matches. In return, Aimée served as Gemma’s jailhouse jellyroll–all to the voyeuristic delight of Mega Cage’s premium access audience.
That drama only became more intense when in the ‘semi-finals’, Aimée’s opponent–who had been heavily favored to win—suspiciously got food poisoning, knocking her out of the competition. As a result, Gemma was last-minute reassigned to the pay-per-view scheduled match, such that neither contestant knew their opponent until Gemma stepped into the cage. There, on pay-per-view TV, Aimée begged Gemma to throw the fight, as Gemma’s sentence would be over in five years–or even less with parole; whereas, Aimée would absolutely die in prison unless she got the grand prize’s defense team to appeal her sentence, possibly allowing her to serve both life sentences concurrently with a chance of parole.
After a moment’s consideration, Gemma reiterated her grandfather’s admonition that “a real fighter’s gotta be knowin’ when’s to punch, an when’s not to.”
And that’s when Gemma punched.
The uppercut KO’d the child-murderer so fast she didn’t have time to register the betrayal. But the after-match premium access coverage did. In all the sordid details. It’s unclear whether it was Renee, the show’s producers, or Aimée herself that smuggled the knife into their joint cell, but Aimée waited for Gemma to fall asleep before attempting to stab Gemma to death. She nearly succeeded too (after all, she had practice), but Gemma proved harder to kill than a pair of defenseless elementary aged kids. Gemma still took a couple of painful forearm, hand, and stomach slashes, but her Savate kickboxing and 52 Hand Blocks helped her eventually disarm, disable, and disfigure her ex-lover. Only then did the conveniently delayed guards haul Aimée away, first to the prison medical ward, and then to solitary confinement. As a ‘consolation prize’, the show gave her a small reprieve from that confinement, allowing her to not only watch the finale cage-match between Gemma and Renee, but to serve as one of its commentators (complete with straitjacket and chains).
The Fight for Freedom
The stakes of that season finale match was clear. A district judge had signed Renee’s death warrant by lethal injection–an execution which had only been stayed by a 90-day order by the Louisiana Supreme Court pending ongoing appeals–appeals which were unlikely to be successful without the grand prize. Renee had not been coy about her objective during her pre-match interview:
“It’s me or that bitch–either she goes out in the cage, or I go out in the fucking injection chamber. Judge Anton Barullo already signed my death warrant–so I’m about to sign Princess’ with my fists.”
It was a close fight, one of the closest in Mega Cage’s history. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Gemma entered the fight badly injured. Her stab wounds had been stitched, but not otherwise allowed to heal. And Renee had NOPD combat training–and nothing to lose. But Gemma was raised by bare-knuckle prizefighters. Fighting was in her blood. And blood won the day–though blood was the price.
During the post-match interview, Gemma was asked if she won “not because she had less to lose than Renee, but because she had more to gain”. In reply, the ‘Princess of Pain’ (as she had been ‘crowned’ by the show’s producers) spit out a bloody tooth and sneered, “Nah, I jus won cuz I’m meaner than her.” RED Network’s pundits lauded the finale and entire season as the “crème de la crème of cage-matches, an authentically moving, heartful, and unabashed expose of the savage, dark heart of the so-called fairer sex.” Beyond such punditry, the stellar ratings were even more telling (though some would say the ratings better reflected the audience’s depravity than the show’s quality).
Regardless, Gemma’s grand prize criminal defense team got her a retrial. During it, Gilbert Goudeau confessed to Douglas’ murder as well as fondling several altar-boys. As a result of that confession and other legal loopholes, Gemma’s sentence was reduced, her charge was dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor, and she was immediately released from prison on time served.
Gemma tried to return to Opelousas, but her mother and siblings wanted nothing to do with her. “Too much of your father’s in you,” her mother harshly explained; whereas, her siblings described how the year of sordid, national TV coverage had drawn all hosts of prying, sleazy tabloid writers and other attention that had ruined most of their businesses, marriages, and overall lives. The rest of the town similarly didn’t appreciate how Gemma and Renee had put Opelousas “on the map” for such slanderous reasons.
Free, but still a felon–and an unemployed, homeless, high school dropout–Gemma went south to New Orleans, following an invitation by Zodiac Productions to discuss a potential movie deal. Yet, by the time she arrived, Zodiac was no longer interested, as they had instead signed an exclusive TV docudrama deal with Renee for rights to her life’s (and potential death’s) story. As Ron Landreneau had put it:
“All you did was punch a priest, who wasn’t really a priest, and a buncha inmates during fights already on TV. But a cop who killed another cop, robbed her old boss, executed a pair of kids, tried to murder the other witnesses, and did a whole lot more fucked up shit, all ’cause she loved a drug dealer’s joystick? That’s some prime-time drama shit.”
At that explanation, Gemma had the mind to punch Ron’s smiling face–but Ron had had the mind to have his security already in the room. After all, he had watched Mega Cage’s sixth season, premium access and all. Still, almost by way of apology, Ron offered Gemma a job on Zodiac’s security staff.
It wasn’t much, but it was something. And Gemma needed something. It was fairly easy work, too. Stand around, look tough. Let this whor–er, escort–in. Keep this washed-up screenwriter or has-been talent agent out. Make sure no one interrupted mid-filming the newest episode of Vieux Carré. Keep certain restraining ordered-nutjob fans away from the lead actress’ trailer.
More importantly to Gemma, the job at Zodiac led to her next ‘big break’. Shortly after 2011’s Mardi Gras, a peculiar business-minded woman in the French Quarter ‘lost’ her chief of security. As conveyed by a middleman, she was looking to fill the vacant position. The job had long hours (days and nights), but paid well, much better than Zodiac (with much better health benefits). Gemma fit all the preferred qualifications, most of which made sense (e.g., discretion, skill with hand-to-hand combat, willingness to live inside the French Quarter) even if others didn’t (e.g., no anemia, post-menarche, Social Security Number having more ‘1’s and ‘2’s than ‘8’s or ‘9’s).
The Interview of a Lifetime
When Gemma agreed to meet her prospective employer, the ‘interview’ was equally odd. First, it was at 3 am, and when she arrived, there were two other applicants also there. In what appeared to be a one-woman boardroom, their prospective employer–dressed in a muted greige skirt-suit–concisely explained the first phase of the employment screening protocol:
“Last woman standing, stays.”
No stranger to no-holds-barred cage-matches, the Princess of Pain delivered. Not necessary because she was the best trained (though her training wasn’t lacking), but because she was, to quote herself, just plain “meaner”.
“Potentially adequate,” was how her prospective employer summed up Gemma’s performance.
When the other applicants staggered (or in the case of one, dragged) out, Gemma was invited to sit at the table; whereupon, a large wall-mounted monitor flared to life, replaying a portion of one of Gemma’s Mega Cage psychological evaluations. In it, Gemma had waxed vitriolic about how men had been the cause of all her life’s woes. Douglas, her dad. Gilbert, the Klan deacon. Her pitiful half-wit public attorney. Her pitiless racist prosecutors, judge, warden, and parole board. The exploitive show’s producers, psychiatrists, and therapists. “If I’d had mo’ sense, I’da been mo’ like ma ma. It’s women like her that do all the workin, keepin the world from outright fallin to fuckin’ pieces, e’en as ass-hat men steal all the credit, leavin us women with jack-shit save an apron or fuck-me-heels.”
At that point in the video, the carpetbagging-accented woman paused the recording and flashed a pointed, if mirthless smile.
“It is customary practice–,” the Yankee businesswoman then explained, “–for legislators to conclude their speeches by reserving ‘the right to revise and amend’ their remarks.” Gesturing back to the screen, she continued, “So do you, Ms. Bernard, wish to revise or amend those remarks?”
Gemma considered the question, but took less time to reply than when her former cellmate asked her to throw in the towel. Her answer was no less punchy.
“Hell fuckin’ no.”
“That is good to hear, Ms. Bernard.”
“Uh, thank you, Ms…”
After a 3-day “trial run”, Gemma Bernard was hired as Natasha’s new chief of security. In a lot of ways, it was similar to her work at Zodiac. Stand around, look tough. Let this whor–er, blood doll–in. Keep this washed-up Rat or has-been ghoul out. Make sure no one interrupts mid-court proceedings at the Evergreen. Keep nutjob hunters away from her domitor’s day-haven.
And the perks?
Far better than all-you-can-eat Herrick’s pudding.