One Hundred Five

“Well, well, a coven of Shadows.”
Britt, “They’re just sitting there, like a group meditation.”
Janah, “That’s basically what it is, except they’re working on qi energy, not mindfulness or world peace.”
One drone is catching the group from a rear door with a glass panel top half. It opens to the kitchen which opens to the dining room and lobby. They are seated around, some on the floor in traditional meditation style, others on couches or chairs.
Britt, “Look! Something floating through the air, what is that?”
The drone cam zooms, Daria, “A stone statue, it was on a bookshelf to the left.”
Chloe, “Daria’s photo memory, I didn’t even notice it.”
“There were a fair number of books on the occult, astrology, and a larger number of popular novels. One of which was Amaya’s, the one in the series about the gay detective, The Private I.”
Amaya, “Only one? They should have the entire series, there were two more, My I and Only I.”
“Maybe they were being read and in someone’s room.”
“That must be it, nobody could read just one I. The series was brilliant. Bet they downloaded my movies too.”
“Shadows reading Amaya’s books and seeing Chloe onscreen, it seems…bizarre.”
We hear a loud POP! The statue turns to dust that falls to the floor, they applaud their success, complimenting themselves on their awesomeness.
“We’re missing the perfect opportunity.”
Zi, “What do you mean?”
Janah, “She means they are expending a lot of energy, if we take them on now, they won’t have time to reboot.”
Nikko, “Sheesh, how stupid am I, of course, let’s go.”
Chloe, “We still don’t know about any innocents, other than the two.”
“Grace B, keep working the rest of the place, you can keep us posted while we get to the B&B.”
“Will do.”
“Lauren, Britt, you’re here with Eloise. Do not for a moment take your eyes off Oceane and Cassie.”
Lauren, “Understood, don’t get killed.”
We take two SUVs, there were twelve Shadows in the room, there are fourteen of us. On the way I get onscreen with the second car.
“Everyone listen up. Zi will go with Nishiko, Daria, Katya and Sloane to the back door, Ellen and Mani patrol the porch until we see how things shake out. Some may try to bolt through the windows. I’m going to the front door with everyone else except Amaya, she stays with the cars. Shooters, resist the temptation to blast away, but if things get hairy, use your judgment. Zi and Chloe, when we’re in, skip the Shadows and search the house. We know where two kids are, see what else turns up and park them in a room.”
Ellen, “Won’t they sense you and Zi...wait, never mind, that’s the idea, freak ‘em front and rear.”
“Confusion works to our advantage, but remember, they may actually be expecting us, which means they may have some sort of plan. We can only hope that, being Shadows, overconfidence and the general inability for Shadows to work together lets them think they can handle us. They also don’t know there are thirteen party crashers.”
Fifteen minutes later we’re down the block, Grace B pops up, “Bedroom second floor front right has a kid, and rear bedroom left has two, not counting the ones you know about. If there are others, they are being dead silent.”
“Great work girl.”
“Eloise caught the rear bedroom, Lauren and Britt got the front, I was busy flying three fucking drones.”
“Great work girls.”
We slip out of the cars and down the street. Ellen and Mani hit the porch first and take positions at the corner, out of sight of the windows. I wait until Zi and her team have a chance to get to the rear door.
Nikko mentals me, “Ready.
I zip up the steps to the front door, kick it open.
Twelve Shadows turn to face me.
One stands, laughs, “The fucking priest. This is your funeral party bitch.”
There’s a bang, Zi and crew pour in from the rear.
A woman nearer the kitchen, “There’s another priest back here, and a few other cunts.”
“Perfect, walked right in for us, kill them.”
My group fans out along the walls, same for Zi’s, they appear surprised. I suppose they were thinking the priest and a couple of monks. We have them surrounded, go straight to attack, they don’t have time to generate collective qi.
Zi and Chloe head for the stairway, a Shadow stands in the way, her hand out readying a qi shot, Chloe’s katana takes her head, they rush past and up the steps. Sweet, only eleven to go.
Two Shadows try for the steps, Dasha cuts them off. She grabs the man by his shirt, lifts him off the ground and smashes him into his buddy. Buddy falls, she punches her captive so hard his neck snaps. I’m on the one on the floor, he’s starting to stand, whips around and catches me with a qi shot that double me over despite my protective shirt. I look up, he’s smiling, well, snarling smiling. My steel toe meets his privates, he actually lifts off the floor, then a spinning kick that breaks his jaw. He’s hunched over, looks at me, his jaw has been relocated to one side of his face. I make a duck bill out of my fingers and show it to him. His eyes widen, he’s familiar with the death touch.
I smash my fingers into his sternum, it will take about fifteen seconds, then his heart will explode.
I don’t have time to watch him die, a force hits my shoulder so hard it spins me around. A vase, a hard ceramic one is busted at my feet. The Shadow, a chubby woman of fifty is sneering at me.
“Time to die priest, and I will be a legend for killing you.”
I smile.
“Think dying is funny bitch?”
“Yep.”
Janah is behind her, sends a qi blast so hard the woman nearly folds in two, she sort of melts at my feet.
Janah, “Appears things are getting under control, I’m going upstairs to help with the children.”
I nod, look across the room. Nikko is thrown up against the wall, too bad for the Shadow, now she’s really pissed. She goes for him, He throws two more qi shots, but she keeps going, he screams, she’s supposed to be writhing in pain.
He screams again as her katana enters his heart and exits his back. She slices down hard then to the side, yuck, guts fall on the floor, he falls on top of them.
Katya is taking a pounding on the far side of the room, enough of that, Katja pulls her laser and the Shadow’s spine is fried, he splits in half…eeeewwww.
I turn to a noise on my left, Daria has a fat, as in obese, woman over her head, she slams the massive chunk to the floor, the body quivers like jelly, blood runs from the mouth, eyes and ears. 
Ellen and Mani come in, Ellen, “Nobody tried to climb out the window. Should have, this place is a mess.”
A screech from the back, Sloane has her wolf teeth sunk in a Shadow’s neck. She also has what appears to be a broken arm. I rush over, Sloane releases the Shadow, a mouthful of neck missing, arterial blood squirts on the wall. 
I catch Sloane, mental Amaya, “Sloane’s arm is busted, come get her, stick some anesthetic in her arm and keep her still.”
I walk Sloane to the front door, Amaya’s already there, “I got her, get this finished.”
Two Shadows left, clearly the most powerful. Sarah’s face is a mess, black eye forming, swollen jaw, she’s limping and the Shadow is arming for another energy blast.
Ellen, “Fuck that,” she levels her gun and beams the laser across his wrist, his hand falls to the floor, the she zaps him in the ear, the light comes out the other side. One left.
Mani is battered back and forth, then thrown against the bookcase. I leap over one bloody mass, another step and go airborne. My heel catches the Shadow in the neck, a tall gangly woman, she staggers to the side, head bent like her neck isn’t supporting it. Mani picks up her laser pistol and drills a shiny hole in the Shadow’s forehead.
It’s eerily quiet, a dozen bodies in various states of mangle, my tribe is still standing, some of them barely. 
“Daria, Dasha, take the most injured to the car, Sarah and Mani, I’m going upstairs to see what’s what, everyone else help the less injured, Amaya has the cars right outside. She’ll take the most beat up with Daria and Dasha so they can start treatment. Grace B will rent a couple of motel rooms where we can get in without walking through a lobby. The rest of us will be along soon.”
“Amaya, you catch that?”
“Yes, on with Grace B now.”

I go upstairs, five kids, two boys, three girls, six to thirteen. 
“What’s their condition?”
Janah, “Fair, confused. I’ve got names, we have to get them back to parents after we sort out who and where the parents are. Our people are on the way, they’ll be cared for until we figure out what’s next.”
A van with two elders and a nurse appears, we take the kids down the rear steps avoiding the boldly mess inside. They’re dazed, common when coming out from under Shadow control. Helpful in the moment, they don’t ask questions, don’t resist.
I speak to the nurse, “They’ve been under a, um, call it a hypnotic influence. They may remember what happened or it may be fuzzy. If they start talking, just listen, no advice, neutral comments only. Do not react, only that everything will be fine, it’s being taken care of. Let them watch kid TV or a kid movie, feed them comfort stuff, pizza, sugar free sodas, a bottle of water first.”
Nurse, “Got it, any injuries?”
“No, but they have been sexually abused. No examinations for now. They appear to be clean, so no reason for a bath unless they ask. They bathe themselves, don’t touch private parts. Sorry for all the rules, I don’t know how much experience you have with this sort of thing.”
“I was selected because I deal with it regularly. I have no idea who hires me, I get on a private jet, people show up, take me to the children or the battered woman, I do nurse things. It’s all off the books so to speak, I don’t care, dragging kids through social services is nasty.”
I nod, I’m also aware that she deals with this kind of nasty regularly. She doesn’t know she’s talking to one of her employers, we’ll keep it that way.

One Hundred Six

Our three motel rooms look like triage centers. Sloane’s arm is broken, a testament to the power of the Shadow. If she wasn’t so quick, the energy shot would have hit her in a vital spot, with far more serious consequences, like death.
Janah fixes the arm in place, splints it, gives Sloane a sedative.
“We’ll let dad look at it when we go home unless you want to take her to the emergency room.”
“Not here, we need a low profile, an exam will reveal wolf teeth and may reveal boy parts. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, we don’t get recorded in the system.”
“Not to mention most of you are covered in blood. I’ll qi it for an hour after we’re done with the others, how are you?”
“Nasty bruise on my shoulder, my stomach is sore but the shirts we wear deflected most of the shot. That group was talented. What are doing about the mess?”
“Nothing, I want the message to get out. The public will hear about a slaughter at a B&B, complete with a beheading and laser guns. The victims will be nebulous, some Shadows have businesses, like the B&B boys, some are less inclined to be documented. We don’t know enough about this group to know which way it falls.”
While we talk, she’s applying healing qi to Sloane’s arm. I have Sarah between my legs on the bed, applying qi to her face on one side, frozen gel pack on the other.
Girls are on the beds, or the floor with gel packs and freezer bags filled with ice from the motel machine. At least qi energy doesn’t pierce the skin, it’s more like a ball bat than a knife. We’re bruised, sore, but not cut up. 
Katya, “Glad you got us these outfits, that bit you developed for knees saved me a broken one.”
“I’ve avoided a lot of busted knees because of it, elbows too.”
My lobster tail device, titanium plates that allow for the joint to bend the right way and prevent it from bending the wrong way. We can take a kick to the knee, or a ball bat, or an attempt to snap an elbow in stride. The joint goes to straight, no further.
Next is get out of bloody clothes, stuff everything into trash bags, those of us who can shower and wash our hair do it, we wash the others gingerly.
“Amaya, the bags need to disappear, preferably full of bleach, have Grace B arrange new vehicles, the people who bring them should clean the crap out of the ones we have and replace the fake plates. We didn’t bleed in them, but they’ve got blood from the targets on the seats. Better yet, have them crushed, cleaning bloodstains is iffy, to do it well enough would make the cars useless anyway. You need help with all of it?”
“No, Grace B and Kota B will deal, the cars will be blocks of metal before sunrise.”
Do we trust the Cleaners to actually destruct the cars, maybe tempted to clean and sell them on the grey market? Yes, because we verify. We get video of the SUVs being demolished. Cleaners get a fat envelope of cash, far more than the car would be worth, and far safer than having us send people to track them down for trying to screw around for a few extra grand. 
Amaya takes the less injured to the hotel. Better to go in smaller groups anyway, and we sure can’t have the battered slogging through the hotel lobby en mass.
I decide the thing to do is get them out of town in the morning, the rest of us will drive from Portland to Sacramento and take a plane from there. We won’t look quite so beat up by then, a bit of makeup, fat sunglasses, caps, the odd limp could be from a hiking spill.
Emma B makes arrangements, Blue Sky private from Portland. While they fly, Dasha drives the rest of us to Sacramento, just under six hundred miles. We park at an Embassy Suites and chill another night, then a Blue Sky this morning to Malibu.
Home, yay! Lauren hugs me, followed by Britt, now I’m feeling practically chipper.
Britt, “You look okay, didn’t get your face smashed like poor Sarah.”
“How is she?”
“Much better, Daria and Dasha alternated qi, just a bit of bruising left around her eye. Sloane’s forearm has a breathable polymer cast James fitted after the X-ray. Janah had it lined up just right.”
“She’s done fingers before, this was her first busted arm.”
“How did Sarah and Mani get so beat up, they had laser guns.”
“They came in from outside when it was evident no Shadow was going to try to escape. Mani got a double shot to her chest two steps in the door and dropped her gun. Sarah was moving across the room to help Nikko when she took one qi blast shot from the left and another straight on. Focused on where she was going, she didn’t pay attention to the Shadows who popped her. Actually, the one to her jaw was a shot that Katja ducked, it wasn’t intended for Sarah. Despite the pain, she got off a laser tag to the knee of one, grilled a kneecap.”
I hear the patter of sixteen little feet, and the soft pad of four big ones, the children file down behind Morshchiny, the massive mastiff plops her front paws on my shoulders, sniffs, satisfied I’m okay, she thumps down to the floor. I supply the required pats and a scratch behind the ears. She heads to her spot in the living room, the center of the mat in front of the flat screen. 
I double cheek kiss each girl, they circle the mastiff and sit cross legged. Clearly, they want the story from me. I park on the couch and give them a reasonably sanitized version. The children know about men and women who use kids for sex, or sexual titillation, they experienced it. They also know about Shadows, and that we kill them. These are twenty year old kids in six to twelve year old bodies that travel to alternate worlds, they’ve seen pastoral beauty and extreme violence. Nothing I say shocks them, they could more likely tell me shocking stories.
Nadia, “While you were recovering, the Gids set fire to the house, the firemen found only charred bones, the place burned hot. Identification will be difficult, nothing survived intact. There will be no cause determined, the fire department will say it has no explanation for a fire so intense.”
Janah sits next to me, “You did well, we have been occupied and didn’t follow the news. The Zycyryn didn’t think this up on their own.”
Nadia shrugs, “We talked it over.”
Janah, “We wanted to make an impression on other Shadows, when this story gets around, they will truly wonder what sort of people are hunting them.”
Dasha, “Children haf made gud decision. We will make special dinner, you will be sure to thank Gids for their help.”
Uma, “We did Mama, we danced in their honor for three hours, they loved it, all sparkles and pops. Morshchiny thinks we are all crazy, she went to sleep.”
Amaya is reading from her tablet, “Dang, the story is right here, B&B destroyed by unusual fire. Authorities have no explanation how such an extreme fire began or what fueled its intensity. Bodies so thoroughly burned there is nothing but charred brittle bone, practically dust. Fire Department Captain Fedders said the average house fire reaches eleven hundred degrees, this fire melted metal appliances, it had to run over two thousand degrees, like a blast furnace in a steel plant. I’ve never seen anything like it, not in a house fire.”
Nikko, “Anything on the kids Janah?”
“We’ve located parents for all but one, a girl. She appears to be a throwaway, she’s eight but all she remembers is the Shadow who she says ‘owns’ her.”
“We picking up another stray?”
“Not sure, she knows us from the rescue, knows at least a little about the other kids, maybe better for her to go to one of the ranches.”
“All our rescued girls know us from the rescue, it never mattered before. It’s also true we have an wildly extended family already.”
“Call everyone in, let’s talk it over.”
Janah explains what we’ve been discussing.
Amaya, “You usually just decide, why the ambivalence now?”
“Because we’re so many now, one more add affects twenty seven people.”
Grace B, “And three bots.”
Uma, “And Morshchiny.”
“Like I said.”
Chloe, “I’m good with it. The child is adorable, big dark eyes, she was foggy, I couldn’t get much of a read on her personality. She wasn’t dark.”
Zi, “That’s right, not tainted by the Shadow, if she had any training, it hadn’t affected her psyche. Her aura was milky yellow, indicating confusion. We have to presume abuse, Shadows don’t keep kids around for any other reason.”
“Emma B did a facial recognition search, the girl doesn’t show up as missing, nobody is looking for her. Of course, there were infants missing eight years ago, she could be one of them, but she doesn’t show up as a DNA match either. Not all kids are DNA profiled, but it’s far more common in the last ten years.”
Nikko, “That supports the idea she was handed over, either by the Shadow controlling the parent or just, as someone said, a throwaway.”
“As a practical matter, where do we put her?”
Tasia, “She can stay in the dorm with us, at least until she grows up, we don’t grow up, we get to stay in the dorm forever,” she giggles.
Janah asks the children, “Are you all good with that?”
Valeska, “Da, Tetya Janah, all of you saved us, we should help this girl.”
“Chloe, can you and Amaya fly up and talk to her? She’s out from under the Shadow’s influence, you can get a better read.”
“Sure, Emma B please arrange a flight, have the plane hold, we’ll return the same day regardless.”
Chloe, “Zi should come as well, two reads are better than one and, as you said, this decision affects the girl and the entire family. I assume we offer her the ranch option as well.”
“Janah, “Yes, I should have said so, but we bias the case by our physical presence. She gets to talk to you, the ranch is a concept and a bunch of people she’s never met. Let me backtrack. Use your judgment, putting the ranch out there may make it seem like we are giving her an option or that we are pushing her in that direction. Which implies having her with us isn’t a first choice, do you see what I’m getting at?”
Chloe, “Yes, knowing you’re wanted is ninety percent of a successful outcome. We’ll get a read and decide on the spot.”
That’s settled, sort of.
Our evening passes normally, thank goodness, some girls are still recovering, Sloane will be a while with the cast. It’s removable, there’s a thin mini cast underneath, two inches wide, covering the exact spot of the break. It allows us to apply qi several times a day without risking separating the broken bone. The energy flow will speed healing, the bone will knit good and strong and she can spend less time with a cast.
A restful night, then time to get up and deal with breakfast for twenty seven, we must be insane.
Amaya, “We are meeting the child at a hotel, the other kids were around, but they began reuniting with parents yesterday, she’s alone with the two Society caretakers. They say she’s marginally responsive, watches TV all day unless they take her out for a walk. She’s made no requests or complaints.”
“When do you leave?”
“Fifteen, we should be seeing her by ten thirty or eleven.”
“She give a name?”
“Nope, they asked, she looked confused.”
“Geez, although Oceane’s captor only called her girl. Names suggest more intimacy, Shadows don’t do intimacy.”
Chloe comes along, “Ready?”
“Where’s Zi?”
“Outside by the car.”
The drive off to the airport, short Blue Sky jet to Portland, then to the hotel, which is in the burbs on the other side from where the B&B was located. We don’t know which Shadow had her, we don’t know where she lived before her captor took her on the Portland trip. Can’t ask the Shadows, they’re all toast.

One Hundred Seven

Since Zi is traveling, I take the children through a gung fu session, then Nikko and I spend another hour with them on kendo. The kids have fun, hyper-active in a good way, enthusiastic. Morshchiny prefers them in the dorm lying quietly with her giant self in between two girls.
Lunch comes and goes, nothing from Amaya. I could be in her head, but I was busy with the children, then lunch, now I’m busy napping. I dream about roasting Shadows, yuck, then I hear Dasha.
“Dahfoney, we haf already to make tea, also Eemaya ees on the way from airport wiz child.”
“Oh, did she leave Chloe and Zi in Portland?”
“You are not anyway funny Dahfoney, get out of bed, after tea we haf dinner to feex. Shreemp cocktail, grill feesh wiz lemon buhter, roast new potato, creamy corn. Ellen ees make giant chocolate cake wiz buttercrim frosting. I haf already cook shreemp, they are ready for peeling, your job. Then refrigerating, make up cocktail appetizer later.”
“We have lettuce?”
“Da, creespy romaine, and Ellen haf already made cocktail sauce.”
I refresh, then to the kitchen, tea is prepped, Amaya comes in, then Chloe and Zi with a sprite in between. Chloe has done a bit of bonding, the child holds her hand tight. Then she stops, we aren’t all in the living area just yet, a few girls are by the pool, others coming down from bedrooms.
She blinks, her head swivels around taking in the place, mouth open, big eyes. It’s extra spacious for obvious reasons, we’re essentially running our own hotel.
The children wash down from upstairs, surround the child, Morshchiny noses her way through, sniffs the girl not much taller than the mastiff.
Uma, “She expects you to pet her…like this,” she takes the girl’s hand and rubs the palm across the dog’s giant head, “her name is Morshchiny, it’s Russian for wrinkles.”
Morshchiny gives the girl a lick on the cheek then sits, the little girl is stroking away, Morshchiny is a sucker for attention.
“Looks like they’ll be pals.”
Karol, “Come with us to your new room, our dorm, we all sleep together and you need to meet Kota B.”
The child looks up at Chloe, “It’s good, you will meet everyone eventually, there is no rush and we have a big family.”
Karol holds her hand and they reverse flow back up the steps.
Over tea, Amaya recaps, “Chloe and Zi say she’s withdrawn but not dangerously so. I doubt she had much human interaction. She will answer questions but doesn’t volunteer anything. We think it is because she does not know enough to volunteer. She knows words, understands what she is told, I mean her knowledge base is small. Her idea of math is one, two, three. She’s hygienic, as we have found with Shadows, they like their toys clean. She must be of Hispanic descent, maybe Arabic given her skin tone, dark hair and eyes, but she knows no Spanish, certainly not Farsi. Her English is basic but adequate.”
“She has no name.”
“Nope, we can do the same bit we did with everyone, me included, let her pick something. We have a policy on new arrivals, they find their way, we give unlimited love and support. We did not ask about how she was treated, she did not volunteer. She did ask if we owned her now, Chloe and Zi cleared up that issue.”
“I have a dinner assignment, peeling fat shrimp for cocktails.”
Amaya, “Yum. I shall shower my splendidosity and return in time to tend bar, I am in need of a large vodka.”
She and Chloe go off, Zi disappears to do the same in the room she shares with Nikko. I peel shrimp, Sarah sidles up next to me and helps, we have a fair amount of shrimp to peel.
“Dasha, there’s more than enough shrimp for six piece shrimp cocktails.”
“Da, tomorrow we will haf shrimp salad for lunch, everybody likes.”
Dasha, my little angel not so little anymore, she and Daria are five six, is always a step or two ahead on menu planning. When she’s cooking, she has chats with herself about the next couple of meals, I’d gotten used to it, Ellen kept thinking Dasha was talking to her. When she would respond, Dasha didn’t know why. I explained it’s how Dasha keeps things straight, just let it roll in one ear and out the other.
By the time Sarah and I have peeled the pile, Amaya has returned and stations herself behind the bar. I pull out cups for the shrimp cocktails, Sarah chops chilled romaine and we assemble twenty eight appetizers, sauce will be on the table, a lemon wedge on each cup.
“Thank you dear one, that went much quicker with help.”
Sarah, “I need to de shrimp my fingers, I smell like a fishmonger.”
“Lemon juice and baking soda followed by a good soapy scrub, you have a nail brush?”
“Yep, wet it, fill it with baking soda and have at it.”
She goes to de-scent, I head to my bathroom for the same, return to find Amaya handing out cocktail of choice to the drinkers. Ellen has bottles of tangy sauvignon blanc breathing in the refrigerator, Emma B is delivering the drinks to girls who are primarily by the pool, a few inside on couches and chairs. They appear to be surfing entertainment choices for later.
Morshchiny lopes down the steps, nose in the air, I toss her a shrimp. She doesn’t chew, she swallows, looks up at me expectantly.
“One more, then go someplace and take one of your many naps.”
Zofia, “No nap, time for her walk,” she turns to our latest unnamed addition, “come on, we can give Morshchiny her exercise and you can check out the ocean.”
Children disappear past the pool and head across the property, we’re pretty much at the top but behind us is more mountain. They’ll climb up, enjoy the view of the Pacific, then make a round of the wall. It isn’t challenging for energetic young girls, but it gives the mastiff a good workout. She’d never burn those calories by herself, but she won’t let the children out of her sight for any reason.
We’re just ready for appetizers when they return, Uma announces, 
“Everyone meet Valeria, it means to be strong, she will be strong like Mamas.”
Chloe asks the girl, “You like it?”
She nods a yes, tiniest grin, the barest whisper, “I have a name, Nadia says we must be strong.”
Chloe caresses her face, “And now have a seat with your new sisters and enjoy dinner, you like shrimp?”
Valeria, “I guess so, I just ate what my own…the man gave me.”
“Taste one, if you like it good, if not, pass the rest to the others, they’ll eat it.”
Nobody but shellfish allergic doesn’t like boiled shrimp with romelaude or tangy cocktail sauce, Valeria is no exception, she practically inhales it.
And she makes short order of grilled fish, buttery new potatoes and creamed corn. A good sign, appetite.
While the bots clean up, the children park on the floor in front of the TV. Since they like that spot, we have a screen kid high and a second screen above it more in line with adults on couches and chairs. We can play two different shows, but one of them has to be a foreign language thing with subtitles or the audio gets absurd. It’s bad enough having the kids show with sound and watching another movie reading subtitles. There are a few weird moments, something funny on the children’s TV and something dramatic on the adults’. Generally we just watch the same thing, mysteries, action movies, our tastes don’t run to love stories or family drama.
Other evenings the kids go to the dorm and Kota B lets them have a half hour of virtual reality. For children who time travel around our and other universes, virtual reality might seem commonplace, but they like the undersea programs, trips to tropical jungles, climbing Mt. Everest and surfing hundred foot waves. 
Tonight is a detective series, which have morphed from forensics and blood spatter, which in reality are less evidentiary than former shows assumed. The plots a have reverted to more old style, a guy and a gun, or a woman, even gay guys and girls, who snoop and solve.
Amaya, “These are so much better than scenes of dead bodies with guts all over the place, or on a table in a lab with a woman in a lab coat picking out tiny fragments of stuff that proves to be crucial. They remind me of the BBS series, all the way back to Sherlock up to Luther. Then a Netflix stumble, remember the transgender assassin? Hit and Miss, I recall. A good concept with rather dull plots and dialogue.”
Completely unacceptable in Amaya-world, she should probably be writing our story instead of me, I’d likely be more interesting.

One Hundred Eight

The river of time flows on, a month of thankful ordinary, which works well for Valeria, a no pressure acclimation. Kota B reported what Amaya suspected, the girl has a narrow scope of knowledge. Primarily self care, we have to wean her off makeup, the Shadow encouraged it. She can count but not do simple arithmetic.
She told Chloe that if anyone wanted to have sex with her it was okay. Chloe handled it, explained that sex wasn’t for the taking, but for sharing. 
It’s hard to know how to deal with sexualized children. If we moralize, which we don’t, the whole guilt trip thing rears its head. If we are completely neutral, there may be an assumption that aggressive approaches are okay. That she is eight is immaterial, the sex cat is out of the bag. The Shadow had not been aggressive, she was a pretty doll Chloe interpreted. Valeria didn’t use the phrase, rather it was how she was treated. Fondling, she wasn’t penetrated, not with a cock anyway, not anally abused. He licked her, she sucked him, he went off on her or in her mouth. The rest of the time, she dressed in things he liked, made herself up, accessorized with the costume jewelry he provided.
Amaya, “She’s actually rather good at it. Unlike the sprites, she outfits, not just simple chemises. And she has a wide range, sometimes it was kiddie, sometimes more adult sheath dresses, flirty skirts and heels. We found out after she toured Chloe Couture, which has both.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I talked to Daria and Dasha. They said to let her pick out what she liked, steering her to the middle of the road but not forcing. She’s going to be a little fashion plate, like someone you adore.”
“I don’t know if we can take another Amaya and Lauren.”
“You get what you get, some of us have to lead, what is the old phrase? Fashion forward. And it is our job to make sure the rest of you do not revert to fashion backward.”
Valeria likes the pool, what kid doesn’t? She’s not a water baby like Oceane, she cruises for laps, dives tentatively, we don’t have a high board here, it’s a standard one meter.
The children swim nude, as does Oceane, it doesn’t faze Valeria, she hops in naked as a new baby, doesn’t appear to be shy. She is quiet, near silent, understandable given her limited, near non-existent, education. Kota B has her reading simple kid books, the children read more complex material and Valeria follows along. The girls are teaching her Russian, simple phrases, conversational. She has to learn to read English, I don’t know if she’s going to take on Cryllic.
One day she’s in the kitchen with Dasha, it’s breakfast preparation, Dasha is getting ready to make blini.
Valeria, “Show me.”
Dasha lets her mix the ingredients, good way to insert math, number of eggs per cups of flour, half a cup of butter and so on. Then Dasha lets her spoon out the batter on our massive griddle, just a few to start. Use the spatula to peek under, check if they are getting done, flip before browning, more like crepes than pancakes, then slide onto a tray to keep warm in the oven.
Dasha has one expression, intense, Valeria adopts it, carefully flipping blini, her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth in concentration, so cute.
Ellen is laying out caviar and smoked salmon, “I hope she gets hooked, we could use another set of hands around the kitchen.”
The children arrive, “Yay, blini!” 
They take their spots, Kota B delivers a platter of warm blini, there is butter, sour cream and caviar on the table, another platter of smoked salmon with capers, chopped egg and toast points to stack it on.
Devona, “So good Mama, perfect blini.”
Dasha, “Valeria makes blini.”
They turn to look, “Ooohhh, spasibo Valeria.”
“Dobro pozhalovat.”
The children applaud, Zofia, “Valeria is learning Russian so well, she knows all of Morshchiny’s commands already. Soon she will be good Russian-American girl.”
Nadia, “And she will be a famous fashion model like Tetya Chloe.”
If Valeria is taking it in, it’s hard to tell, she’s busy making blini, the adults are filtering in.
Uma, “Tetya Amaya, Valeria is blini koroleva and we have ikra, also kopchenyy losos', it is all so good.”
I hear Valeria ask Dasha quietly, “I know koroleva, queen, what is kopchenyy losos'?’”
“Smoked salmon.”
“Say it.”
“Kap-chooney lassos.”
“I will remember, kap-chooney lassos. What is eegrah?”
“Caviar, the phonetic is ikra, the Cryllic is,” she pencils it on a bit of paper, “икра.”
Valeria studies the word, “What is kopchenyy losos’?”
Dasha writes it, копченый лосось.
“You will teach me.”
Dasha, “Da, not so hard, you are not stupid girl.”
Valeria doesn’t acknowledge, pulls blini from the oven and passes the platter to Emma B.
Amazing, I’m misty.
Janah, “We aren’t sure of her ethnicity, but Zofia has it right, her personality will be Slavic-American, more Slavic after the influence of the children and the Mamas.”
“And tall when she grows into her feet and hands. Might have another Chloe.”

Chloe is six feet, tallest of our crew, Nikko and I are five ten, everyone else goes down from there.
“I think so, and she’s bony like you were. Funny, neither Hispanic nor Arabic women are that tall. She’s got to be a blend, there’s a tall relative in there someplace. Doesn’t matter, we aren’t having her genome sequenced, she’ll turn out like she turns out.”
Family fed, the bots deal with dishes, pots and pans, girls go off to whatever projects they have in mind for the day.
Valeria blinks up at me, I’m having déjà vu, she’s just like Dasha, earnest and direct, “Tetya Dafna, you will call me when it is time for making lunch.”
“I surely will, we usually start prep around noon, lunches are uncomplicated as you’ve seen, soups, sandwiches. In fact, I’m making roasted tomato bisque soup for lunch today and it needs to get started right now. Do you want to make it?”
“Da, you will show me.”
We drain cans of whole tomatoes, add shredded carrots, olive oil, shallots and a bit of brown sugar.
“Toss it around with the spoon to mix things up, then pour it into the baking pans. Oven at four hundred degrees for a half hour, the mix should be mush, caramelized is the fancy word for it. I add ghee, clarified butter, which gives it a wonderfully rich flavor and a silky umami.”
“What is umami?”
“You know how different foods feel different in your mouth, like buttery toast has that slick taste, and popcorn, chips or nuts are crunchy?”
“Da.”
“That’s umami, the feel of the food in your mouth. You really only have four things your tongue can taste, sweet, salt, sour, bitter, we say umami is the fifth taste. Everything else we call taste is really smell.”
I take out a big pot, “Okay, two sticks of butter, we need to chop garlic, which I do in the processor because garlic is sticky and messy to chop by hand, particularly with the volumes we use. Then crushed red pepper, all into the pot and we heat just enough to get the garlic oil working for us. Next comes tomato paste, stir it in. Now, a half cup of sherry, raise the temp a bit, keep stirring until the alcohol has evaporated, a couple of minutes.”
She’s doing each step, I’m only watching, “Add the chicken stock, the crushed tomatoes and stir it up. The roasted vegetables will be ready in a few, just turn the heat to the lowest setting and wait.”
Valeria, “Won’t it be lumpy?”
“Excellent observation, you are going to puree it, that means stick it all in the blenders until it’s soup. Tomato bisque is not much different than regular tomato soup, the bisque part comes when we add heavy cream at the end. We will also add more chicken stock if the soup is too thick, not a lot, bisque shouldn’t be runny, it should have some heft. Just before time to serve, we will make grilled cheese sandwiches, no crust, and cut them into quarters as a side treat.”
She nods, stirs the soup again, it’s time to add the roasted veggies, then puree. 
“Pour it all back into the pot and cover it, no heat. Let it sit and mingle the flavors, after it’s cooled, I’ll stick it in the refrigerator until time to heat for lunch, that’s when we’ll add the cream. And you can go do whatever, I’ll find you when it’s time to make grilled cheese if you wish.”
“Da.”
She goes upstairs, I presume to the dorm, the bots will clear up and put away. Dasha comes along, “You haf already zoup.”
“Valeria made it, she did well, a simple soup to get her started, where’d you get off to?”
“Sister and Ellen.”
I grin, don’t need details, the twins doubled down on delectable Ellen for a mid-morning snack, I can relate.
“I thought mini grilled cheese as a side to the bisque, Valeria wants to come down for prep.”
Dasha, “She ees gud girl, quiet, I see her talking to Chloe.”
“Janah thinks she might be a fashion model, I know it’s too soon to determine her interests, but she’s lanky like Chloe, and she’s going to be tall.”
“I will be here to feenish lunch, she can learn more Russian words. She told me she wants to learn Cryllic, ees beeg project for leetle girl.”
“She’s kind of a blank education-wise, in a way that’s good. Oceane was much the same, it opened her up to worlds we don’t much understand. Valeria seems more grounded, and the early read is she likes structure, cooking is structured, orderly, maybe why she gravitates to it. Oceane couldn’t cook jack.”
“What kind of chiz for sandwich?”
“We have classic American slices, or we can elevate the dish by using havarti, provolone or mozzarella. Suppose we make four kinds?”
“Gud, then Valeria can learn the names, we haf enough bread?”
“Yes, just brought in a dozen loaves of multigrain.”
Dasha shifts gears again, “Do parents know about Valeria yet?”
“No, they return from Greece in a few days, I thought I’d spring it on them, they’re grandparents ten times over, not counting eight children. I figured I’d invite them over and see if they spot the new one in the crowd.”
Dasha shrugs, “Maybe not Lacy or Taylor, Sis and James will know instantly, Kara also. Susan ees always observant about fahmahley, she ees check out every girl to see eef we are okay. James ees second nature, psychiatrist.”
“And Kara has an artist’s eye for detail.”
“Da, we haf gud grandparenting peersons, they do not steek een nose, but always available for helping and talking.”
I think I’ll tell Sis what Dasha said, she’ll get misty and a tear will fall. Such a comment from one of our stoic twins is not said lightly. They don’t do lightly.

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