Chapter Thirty Three IV
So where there is confusion there must be choice. No?
When I am very clear then there is no choice.
When there is uncertainty, when there is no clarity,
when there is confusion, then choice arises.
J. Krishnamurti, Second Public Dialogue in Saanen, August 1973
I sit on a bed in the emergency room. The ER docs are wondering how it is the hospital’s brilliant neurosurgeon had been recruited to suture a two inch cut. Then they are wondering about the robe, and the tiger and dragon brands on my forearms, and the elegant Japanese girl who stands next to me protectively. And why we are chattering away in Japanese, and why the Japanese girl holds my hand and kisses my cheek a half dozen times.
Janah is still with Master Sung, “I thought I told you not to get damaged.”
“Sorry, he caught me with the tip. Dad’s got their best surgeon here. He said there shouldn’t be much of a scar.”
“I’ll work on it every day, there won’t be any scar.”
Janah is feeling better, Sung will live thanks to Master Chu, and Hue’s medications. After he took two bullets, had his leg broken and still refused to speak, they shot Zhang as an example. When the Masters would not reveal the location of the secret teachings, four students were murdered. Taken from the meditation hall and shot in the back of the head while Sung and the others watched.
Sung’s dilemma was no dilemma at all. To give them the teachings is prohibited by all the tenants of Shaolin. In the hands of these assassins, there would only be more death once they learned the true techniques of dim mak and the mysteries of qi. The monks understand death is part of it, they would rather be sacrificed than to release the teachings to ignorant murderers.
As came out during the investigation, the men rounded up the monks at gunpoint and had them in the meditation hall, then proceeded to try and coerce the information from the masters. When it didn't work, they guarded the monks and discussed plans to take apart the temple in search of the books and any other treasures they could carry off. Only the masters know where the books are, killing more monks, the men realized, would be noisy, messy and pointless. It also occurred to the two leaders that if all the monks attacked en masse, they could be overwhelmed. Many monks would die, but not all. At the point of assigning a team of four to search out the hidden material, I was being tossed over the wall by Black. The rest you know.
The next few weeks go quickly and painfully. Funerals, three days of meditation for the dead. That included the dead ninjas, who the Shaolin see as ignorant beings who needlessly died trying to satisfy their desire for power they didn’t understand and would likely kill them in the attempt to learn.
Master Chu is soon laughing, chattering away to his old friend Zhang as if he’s still walking by his side to the meditation hall. In a very real way, of course, he is. They had told their stories so many times that one knew what the other’s response would be before any words were spoken.
The vibrancy of one old man resonated to the others, his resilience in the face of losing his friend of eighty years covers the temple. All of us, including Nikko, stay at the temple an additional week. The police had been considerate, Detective Marsconi particularly helpful in shortening the investigation. He wasn’t out on a limb. He got a call from the Chief, who had gotten a call from the Mayor. It was evident that the Mayor had some heretofore unknown fondness for the Shaolin. The Chief assumed that the substantial influence of Mrs. Fong had something to do with it. They didn’t know that Janah saved the Mayor’s niece and handed the FBI a kidnapping and sex slavery case in a legally neat, if physically messy, package.
One morning after meditation, the three remaining Masters, Hue, Chu and Kahn ask Janah to see them in Sung’s office. Master Sung is there, lying on a small bed. His injuries are severe. Janah worked with him every day, but he had been shot through the chest and abdomen, and his leg had been broken. He is a shell of himself, yet remains cheerful despite difficulty breathing and limited mobility. Today, he is wrapped in a blanket, head propped on two pillows. He smiles when Janah comes in.
They sit cross legged on mats, in a semicircle around Sung’s bed.
Sung speaks, clearly it takes great effort, his voice is soft, but firm, “Master J, you still bring an old man joy when you enter the room.”
Janah, “And it is a joy to be with you and my friends.”
Sung, “It is evident I am unable to continue as Abbott. Hue and Chu are getting well on in years. Master Khan, not so young himself, has much responsibility. He is our sole master in all the forms of Gung Fu, except Master Sylk, who cannot be in the temple teaching every day. Do you begin to understand our dilemma?”
There’s no point in being coy or pretending that she didn’t grasp the intent of his message, “You need an Abbott to administer the temple’s business.”
Sung, “And there is no one better suited to the position than our own Master J.”
There is silence, then Janah speaks, “I am not Shaolin. Of course, you have already considered that. And you are perfectly aware of my love for and devotion to the monks of Shaolin. Sly old men, you also then know that I cannot refuse any request from my friends in the order.”
Chu can’t help himself, he starts laughing, “It will be refreshing to have an Abbess who understands me for once. Master Sung only thought I was a braying donkey who knew a few energy tricks. Now I will get the respect I deserve. My old friend Zhang is dancing in joy, although he still dances badly, even from the void.”
Chu tickled himself with his own observations and that gives Janah the giggles.
Sung, “It gives me strength to hear that gentle laughter.”
Janah, “And I expect to have your advice and counsel. I accept on the condition that my good friends remain many, many years to save me from my ignorance.”
“Then it is settled, our temple has a new Abbess, Abbess Svensson. Although I think Abbess J will be the preferred title.”
Janah remains seated, the men stand and bow to their new Abbess.
I am in the garden with Nikko, Black and Chan. I explain what just transpired.
Black, “Made the best possible choice.”
We meet Janah coming out of Sung's room and go to the condo. A formal ceremony will be arranged for the following week.
Susan, ‘Hello my angels! Whatever has been going on? You guys have been locked away in the temple, good thing Lacy and Ning cared for the plants. I have the death touch when it comes to nature. Can we ask questions? I only have twenty or thirty, it shouldn’t take but most of the night if we start now. Hello Black, hello Chan, kiss me then you may want to kiss your women, who have been eternally patient. In case you’ve forgotten, the little one is Chan’s wife, the other babe is yours Black. Maybe I should have gotten them name tags.”
“Sis, they saw them a week ago. And there’s new technology, you know cell phones, and webcams, like the one I talked to you on yesterday.”
Chris, “Fahgeddaboutit, it isn’t the same. This time I agree with Sis completely.”
Lacy, “You always agree with Sis completely.”
Chris, “And this time I agree like totally completely. How is Sung? Better, I trust, or you wouldn’t be here. And the monks? How are you guys, this has been a horribly sad event. Don’t give me a bunch of Buddhist crap. Losing Zhang, the others, it has to cut deep.”
Susan, “When I heard, I went to visit Ari and Soichi. Your father tried to be stoic, he excused himself to meditate, but his eyes gave the samurai away. They expect you and Daphne to show up immediately if not sooner.”
“Don’t give a moment’s thought to my stitched up arm. It’s hardly a scratch. I probably won’t need to have it amputated or anything.”
Chris, “Let me see, the bandage is off?”
I show her the cut, the sutures are white, the skin still puffy, but the cut is closed snugly, there are four knots in each suture, each knot exactly parallel to the last, the sign of a professional’s professional. Janah kept it covered in antibiotic lotion. In ten days the stitches can come out.
Chris, “Son of a bitch. That’s quite a gash baby girl. Deep?”
“Not too, it won’t affect the muscle, he didn’t catch any tendon. Soon as the skin is knitted well, I’m back in kendo training. Nikko was just amazing. She is beyond mere katana master, samurai to the core.”
Lacy, “Black, Daphne said you were cut as well. Are you okay, really?”
Black, “I got the same surgeon as Daph, Dr. Svensson got the best of the best, just to do some cut and paste. He was amazing to watch, I can understand why he’s a neurosurgeon. I have never seen such delicate accuracy. It was like watching Daphne do calligraphy, every stroke perfect. Kara would have totally appreciated it.”
Kara, “James has the utmost respect for Ted, amazed at his skill, and he’s not easily amazed considering his daughters. When he heard there were sutures needed, he was on the phone. Ted was in the hospital, checking on patients. James says he can’t recall being at the hospital when Ted wasn’t there.”
The family settles down, Kara makes drinks, pours wine, Chris and Lacy go down the street to pick up an Italian extravaganza. Soon there’s an eat-a-thon, cheesy lasagna, ravioli, manicotti, crusty Ciabatta bread, more Chianti, and a stack of cannoli for dessert.
Black, “I was kind of busy, I only caught glimpses, one of the monks who watched the fight said that Chan’s opponent surrendered without either landing a blow, or being struck. He said the ninja just tired himself out striking and hitting nothing, at the end, literally couldn’t lift his sword, just knelt and surrendered.”
Ning smiles, Janah says, “Chan used qi to twist the mind of his attacker. He made him believe his katana was too heavy to lift, made his own body appear to be in one place when it was in another. The ninja struck nothing because the image he attacked was only in his mind.”
Chris, “Unbelievable, I can use it in my next book. Man, the things the mind can do when we unleash it.”
Janah, “And if the intruders had gotten what they came for, it would have made the average terrorist attack look like a minor skirmish. Sung had no choice but to keep silent.”
Susan, “Which brings me to one of my questions. Is Sung well enough to remain as Abbott? Is there some plan of succession? I don’t know all the monks, how does that work?”
Janah looks at Chan and Black, I, for once, am quiet.
Susan, “I didn’t realize it was such a hard question. What am I missing?”
Kara, “Yeah, it seems like an obvious question, can you enlighten us, is it some kind of secret Shaolin thing?”
Black asks Janah, “Can I handle this?”
Janah nods slightly.
“It is a perfectly good question, and the masters naturally had a plan and made the best decision. Frankly, it was brilliant in my view, don’t you think, Chan?”
Chan, “Obvious question, obvious answer.”
Kara, “Christ, he’s figured it out. Somebody cough it up please.”
Black, “The temple has, for the first time in its history, named an Abbess. In this case, Abbess J.”
Lacy, “Abbess J? Oh….. Oh! How perfectly splendid! My best friend is the Abbess of a Shaolin Temple. This is more than perfect.”
She hugs Janah, kisses her, “I hope it’s okay to kiss the Abbess.”
Janah giggles, Chris’ mouth open, staring at Janah, then me, then Janah. Kara has tears in her eyes, Susan beats her by a few drops.
Chapter Thirty Four IV
“You look yummy.”
Janah, “Thank you, I must be an exhibitionist.”
“Daphinity does not label. You’re a girl who likes to be nude
so others can enjoy your lack of clothing.”
Kara dabs her eyes, “How does this work? Do you have to live at the temple?”
Janah, “Daphne and I might spend some nights there. Mostly we’ll be at home. The masters understand they get two for the price of one.”
“Which is even a better deal for them since the pay is zero.”
Janah, “The job is partly administrative, which Daphne does in her sleep. Then teaching, collaborating with the other masters about promotions, tests for priest, who is accepted as students, who is asked to leave. These things don’t happen every day, admissions are only every other year, sometimes no applicants are accepted.”
Black, “I’m sure the monks will be glad to have Master Sylk in the kitchen and instructing Gung Fu.”
“And Janah will be, as she is with us, master of delegation. She’ll have monks doing various administrative jobs and she simply overseeing the work flow. It gives them responsibility, helps them learn, and she gets the benefit of fresh ideas from engaged assistants. Sung tended to rely on the other masters. Which in the case of the temple, is fine, it’s an open-minded group. Over the years, many masters have been appointed, many have also left for other temples, or are simply out in the world. There aren’t a pile of spares. She’ll give more authority to disciples in specific areas.”
Susan, “Like Nikko learning the real estate management business. She learns from Mrs. Fong, but she also learns by having to make decisions on the job.”
“Exactly, Master Lesbrain.”
Janah, “General administration is far simpler because of technology. I can e-mail, text or call from one phone. I want to be there as much as possible, I would miss the ebb and flow of daily life. Chan can come and go as he needs to. Nikko is a welcome and honored guest. After her demonstration in dispatching the invaders, she has risen to mythical. Years from now, there will be stories of the samurai who stood side by side with Shaolin in a fight to the death to protect the secret teachings.”
Black, “I’m writing a poem about it. It must be pretty good, Sonia was all tears, then she forced me to exert my mystical powers of passion. I may work on that poem forever.”
“Forced? She has no trouble getting your mystical powers to do exactly what she wants.”
Susan, “Will Nikko train as a Shaolin?”
Janah, “No, she doesn’t have time to be a student, then a disciple for years. Besides, she’s quite dangerous enough. She’s a taekwondo black belt, a kendo master and samurai. Her property work is time consuming enough.”
James, “And you’ve figured a way to keep your crew nearby all the time.”
“Yes, and spending time alone together at the apartment, attending to each other.”
James considers her comment, “You mean more than lovemaking, don’t you?”
Janah, “When we are there together, it’s all lovemaking. Of course there’s the sex play, but more than that. Some evenings there is complete silence. Daphne cooks, Nikko reads, I’m busy doing nothing. After we eat, we’re on the mat, sometimes one of Daphne’s action flicks, sometimes just background music. Nikko loves jazz, her particular favorite is Duke Ellington. We brush hair, pedicure and manicure occasionally, but mostly nothing. Time disappears, it’s often midnight before we realize it.”
James, “Sounds idyllic.”
“We’re like goldfish, happily swimming around in our big bowl.”
Hugs, short walk home, shower and bed.
The next day we’re in the temple, the cell beeps, Janah answers, “Hello Mrs. E.”
Mrs. Epstein, “Hello, my angel. How is the Abbess? Susan called to enlighten me.”
Janah, “I’m loving an excuse to be back and I have so much help. Daphne does organization and scheduling, two disciples, Mark and Casey, handle routine admin. They’re recently graduated students from NYU and Columbia. One is an accountant and the other an MBA. I get to spend all my time in the garden getting deliciously dirty and watching David Li and his birds. If the other masters catch on they might cut my pay.”
Mrs. Epstein, “They don’t pay you now. I recall the donations from your family and Mrs. Fong, you are actually paying them.”
“You have a point. Anyway, it’s a joy to wake up every day between my girls, Daphne goes straight to the kitchen to oversee the monks’ breakfast, Nikko usually eats with us, then goes to her buildings, then I get to play in the dirt. It’s worth paying for.”
“Can you take on a child abuser?’
“Is it complicated or can Chan and Nikko do it?”
“Nikko could do it in her sleep. But we always use teams. I presume you are wanting to stay close until you’re sure things are running smoothly.”
“Yes, and Daphne and I don’t move that far from each other. If Daphne goes out of town, I go out of town, if I stay here, Daphne stays here, suppose we’re codependent, oh well.”
Mrs. Epstein, “It’s not sentimental insecurity, neither of you are that. It’s a joy most people could never grasp. To get to the point, it’s a simple case of moving out the children, mom has already disappeared. Dad is using the girl as a substitute wife, the boy is younger, either slapped around or ignored. The girl is fourteen, she’s taking care of the little boy the best she can. Neither of them is in school. Daddy moves them around enough to keep the school and social systems out of his life. He does lite repairs, small remodeling jobs, things that don’t require reporting to a boss, paying taxes, registering with anyone.”
Janah, “Naturally the Society has clear evidence of the abuse.”
“The girl’s already had one abortion, the boy, he’s six or seven, has been seen bruised, black eye. Then another neighbor asked her doctor what cigarette burns would look like, how long they might take to heal. When he told her, she said she knew a little boy that had burns like that. She reported it, but the target moved to the next state.”
“How’d you find him?”
“Description of the truck, the target and children, went out to Surveillance. They called around, low end motels, trailer parks, campgrounds. Said they were looking to hire a repairman, close a checking account, had a message that Uncle Jim had died, any harmless story that wouldn’t arouse attention. We didn’t care if they told him about the call. We just wanted a confirmation that they’d seen him or his truck or the kids. Surveillance found him at a pay by the week motel in Ocala Florida. Our people possess formidable persistence.”
Janah, “And they do excellent work, they've never let us down, either for information or equipment. Okay, Nikko and Chan will leave tomorrow. You have the details on the website I presume?”
“Here’s the code,” she rattles off a list of numbers, letters and symbols, “if he relocates, Surveillance is watching. We’ll keep you updated.”
They disconnect, Janah heads down to the training area to find Chan. She calls Nikko, she shows up a half hour later. They leave to pack a few things and catch a flight to Jacksonville. From there, Transportation has a rental car in the airport lot. Ocala is only a hundred miles southwest of Jacksonville, the target is in the same budget motel. Surveillance reports he primarily hangs around, went to a house in the suburbs once. It appeared to be for an estimate on repairing rotting eaves along the roofline of an small house. He and the owner walked around the house, pointing up at the eaves, a conversation about price, they shook hands and the target went back to the motel. He went out alone a couple of times and returned with boards and gutter sections from Home Depot.
Chan and Nikko are in the car scoping out the situation. An elderly woman approaches the car and lays a digital recorder on the roof as she shuffles past. Nikko rolls down the window, reaches up to the roof and pulls it into the car. They listen, it isn’t pretty.
The recording begins with an anonymous voice, yesterday’s date, when it was recorded, where and who is on the recording.
A hard male voice says, “You two stayed right here the whole time I was out, right?”
A boy’s voice, “We dint go no place.”
A clear slap, a howl from the child, then another, “Then where’d the candy wrapper come from, and the coke can, you lying little fuck?”
A female voice, “Don’t hit him no more, he ain’t done nothing. I went to the machines down the way to get him something to eat. He was hungry, we was both hungry. Ain’t had no food since yesterday.”
There is another sound, not a slap, a dull thud, like a punch, then “You want more, open your mouth. Sit there and watch television and don’t fucking move.”
The female voice, ‘What you want to hit him for, being hungry? That ain’t right. I’ll do what you want, just leave him alone. Let’s go in back, leave him to the TV, then we need some real food.”
The volume goes up on the television, a door closes. Surveillance redirected the listening device to the bedroom. There isn’t much to hear after, ‘get them clothes off.’
After a time, the target says, “Get on the bed, on your knees, I’m gonna fuck you dog style, since you’re my bitch,” then a laugh.
Nikko, “Heard enough?”
Chan says nothing, Nikko, “Yeah, me too. Let’s do this.”
She calls a number on the secure Iridium phone. She lets it ring twice then hangs up. A black van pulls into her rear view mirror a block down the street.
They approach the door, room number six, ground floor. Nikko is about to knock when a sound comes through the door, a thump, then something bangs up against a wall.
A girl’s voice sobs, “What’d you kick him for? He’s a little boy, what the fuck did he do, he’s just watchin’ TV!”
Chan smashes the door hard enough to take it completely off the frame, it bangs the target in the back. There’s a girl, maybe fourteen, facing him, and a young boy of six curled up in the corner whimpering and holding his side. The man stumbles forward a step, then turns. He pushes the door to the side and stares at a block of granite and a tall girl with a scarf tied around her head dressed in black leather. She has a chain in her hand.
Just as the target collects himself enough to get angry, Nikko breaks his nose with the chain. His hand flies to his face, blood spurts, Chan rests his palm on the target’s chest. All six feet and two-twenty, sails backwards into the end table next to the bed and crushes the lamp. He slouches to the floor, unconscious.
The girl jumps into Chan’s arms, “Mister, I don’t know how you dropped out of the sky, but you done saved my brother’s life. That bag of shit was going to kill him one day, sure as I’m standin’ here. I was gonna to kill the bastard myself, I’d done made my mind up so’s I guess you done saved my life too,” she holds him tight and begins to sob.
Nikko is comforting the boy, she checks his ribs, a big bruise starting, he might need more medical attention, she pokes just a bit. If one is cracked, she can’t tell, but none is broken. She strokes his brow, he curls up against her, shaking but otherwise silent. She kisses his cheek softly and holds him.
“Get whatever you want to take. Good people are here for you. They will take you to a safe place.”
Nikko holds the girl’s eyes, “Your brother will need you, be strong, you will never be hurt or hungry again.”
Chan picks up the boy gently and carries him to the van parked in the shadows. An elderly couple takes over. There is food, a pile of soft blankets, fresh cold water to wipe his face, and gel packs. Chan lays the boy down on his good side and covers the bruised ribs with the gel packs. The woman climbs in the rear and holds the boy's head in her lap.
Nikko talks to the girl, “We know some of what happened. You and your brother will be in a safe place, a permanent home, with family and new names, school, tutors if you need them, medical care. You’ve been abused and you have shown courage. There is no shame in talking things over with a counselor, tell your story in any way you want to tell it. You can only care for your brother if you take care of yourself. Do you understand?”
The girl nods, “I reckon. I ain’t had no control of my own body for so long, I don’t know what I am, don’t know who I am.”
“You’re fourteen, and you’re alive. You have been used by an evil man and despite that, you have cared for and protected your brother as well as anyone could. I am honored to know such a person, you are a great warrior, and I will remember you always.”
The girl smiles, cries, then sighs, “I never thought about being no great warrior. I seen what you done with that chain. More than that, I see them black eyes of yours. The bad ones feel fear, I see grace. Will we see you again?”
“Best not to. But we will be in each other’s heart. Now, go to your brother, heal yourself, he will heal by seeing your courage.”
Nikko hugs the girl, strokes her cheek, “We will always be sisters, I will think of you often.”
The girl, “I never had no sister. I’m glad to have one like you. You ain’t afraid of no man alive, are you? You don’t need to say, I see it in them eyes. I was afraid, but for my little brother. I let go my fear a long time ago. Living with that asshole, weren’t no choice. You have give me, given me, more than you can know. I’m gonna learn to talk right, go to school, get my brother in school. There ain’t, isn’t, no way thank you is enough.”
She hugs Nikko, walks to the van, waves, Chan slides the door closed and it disappears into the night.
The motel is practically empty, the smashed door hasn’t aroused any curiosity seekers yet. Chan pushes it into place enough to appear normal from a distance. They aren’t going to be around long.
Nikko throws a bucket of ice water on the target, then uses my favorite attention getter, an ammonia cap, busts it under his nose. The big brute’s head snaps back, Nikko backhands him, hard fist across the jaw, titanium capped knuckles do their job, bone cracks. She pops a second cap under his nose. Chan holds his head, he has no choice but to breath the acrid vapor.
When he starts to choke, she throws it aside and breaks his nose with the palm heel of her hand. Blood runs from his mouth and nose, he groans.
“Got your attention?”
He glares at her, “What you want, where’s my kids? Fuck you think you doing?”
Nikko nods. Chan picks him up by the belt and throws him against the wall. His body slams hard against the sheetrock and before he can fall, Chan presses his hand against the man’s throat and holds him up, up on his tiptoes, any further up and he would essentially be hung.
Nikko, “You don’t ask, you answer. Are you clear? Or do I have my friend put his finger through your throat?"
Chan puts his index finger deep into the cleft of the man’s throat, he starts to gag, his head bobs vigorous agreement.
Nikko, “Good. I tell you what’s going to happen, you agree. If you don’t agree, I take your eyes. I will ask a question, you have one chance to get it right. Do you understand?”
He nods a yes, gags, Chan still has a finger buried in his throat. Stick yours in the cleft and press, you’ll get the idea.
Nikko continues, “You have no children. You have given up all parental rights. You will receive paperwork to that effect in a day or so. You will be watched. You will not have any more children, you will not adopt any children, you will not cohabit with any woman who has children. You won’t even date a woman who has children. If you do, I will see to it that you are neutered. My friend will demonstrate just a tiny example of how it works.”
Chan’s knee buries itself between the legs so hard he lifts off the floor. He collapses and vomits, curls up wheezing, holding his crotch gingerly.
“Getting the picture?”
The man doesn’t say anything, Nikko whips the chain hard across his knee.
“I asked you a question.”
The man wheezes, “Yes.”
Nikko’s chain whips again, right across his shin, breaks it clean; he screams into Chan’s massive hand.
Chan takes his hand away, “Yes, I get it. I’m gonna to be followed, I can’t be around no kids, I don’t have any kids, I can’t have any kids.”
Nikko takes him by the hair, yanks his head around to face her, “So far, so good. I’ll leave you with this thought. I want you to screw up. I will love nothing more than to see your cracker ass again. If I do, I guarantee you will make your way by pushing yourself down the street on a board with wheels. You will lick your food out of a bowl like a dog.”
Chan and Nikko leave him on the floor in a puddle of his vomit. They drive the hundred miles to the airport. It’s late. They leave the car in a Hampton lot, go to the rooms separately. In the morning they refuel at the Hampton buffet, pack up, catch a cab to the airport and are in Manhattan three hours later.
Nikko summarizes the story to Janah and me over dinner. Janah doesn’t ask any questions. Nobody died, and given what Nikko heard on the recording, she’d been a model of restraint.
Chapter Thirty Five IV
That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.
The cell beeps, we use beeps and rings, no ringtones. Don’t use ringtones, they’re stupid, nobody wants to hear your phone ring at all, much less ten seconds of crappy music.
It’s Mrs. Epstein, “Hello Mrs. E, what’s doing on a Saturday with my favorite aunt?”
Mrs. Epstein laughed, “Favorite grandmother is more like it, but thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
Janah, “Mrs. Fong is our favorite grandmother, you have to be a favorite something else, you are much younger than Mrs. Fong, who won’t admit her age, but she must be in her eighties. You aren’t even close to grandmother.”
“Well, I’m almost feeling like one. I have an old acquaintance who has a most disturbing problem, the kind of thing you may find worthy of occupying your complicated mind.”
“Sounds deliciously intriguing, should I come over?”
“Nikko is just finishing swapping pedicures with Daphne. We can be there in an hour or so.”
“I’ll have a light lunch prepared.”
“See you soon.”
Janah hangs up, “We’re seeing Mrs. E in an hour. She wants me to handle something, not Society business. Your outfits will be on the bed, I’m jumping in the shower. We leave in forty five.”
We dress in the silk pants, ankle boots and pullovers. Janah in one of her antique fabric dresses and platforms, Nikko adds our waist chain accessories and fastens my stainless steel necklace. She hands me a serrated blade flick knife, then slips an identical one into a pocket in the top of her boot.
Weapons have become standard procedure when we’re out. People had begun appearing with either bad intent, like Frolich’s two mugs, or hired help, like Vanessa Altamont’s security boys.
That Janah attracts interest is no surprise. What is disturbing is that the source of the interest is hidden. Mrs. Fong and Mrs. Epstein heard rumors from time to time, curiosity about Janah. We don’t know if there’s a good or bad reason, but we aren’t going to assume they only want her autograph.
Mrs. E hasn’t lost her penchant for creating the atmosphere of an old world hotel lobby, massive chairs, settees and sofas, end tables for books and drinks. One area remains less old world hotel and more eastern minimalist. The spot where my calligraphy hangs, bordered by a five foot black vase flecked with gold, encircled by three gold rings near the top.
To the left of the painting is a bronze of three women sitting cross legged in a circle, a cup of tea in front of each. The bronze is three feet high, the women unmistakably Nikko, Janah and me. My bronze hands outstretched clearly indicating I am telling a story, Nikko’s hands folded in her lap, looking towards me expressionless, and Janah smiling, her hand almost to her mouth as she does when suppressing giggles. It is like the artist had been sitting in on one of our discussions at home. Clearly Kara provided guidance to the metal sculptor as only one who knew us well could have captured such a communal moment.
While we enjoy a variety of steamed and fried vegetables, brown rice, then coffee and tea with petit fours, Mrs. Epstein tells her story, “Ezra James is a retired philosophy professor. He taught his entire career at Stony Brook on Long Island. He’s lived a solitary life otherwise. Never married, seldom socialized except with student visitors at his home, stayed as far away from academic politics as he could manage. His students were his sole interests along with his subject matter and he worked hard to keep his course material fresh and lively. By all lights he succeeded. Students frequently gathered at his home, not for endless discussions of philosophy, but to talk over every day matters. Ezra seldom commented unless asked a direct question, which the students never took for disinterest, rather the opposite. They seemed to intuitively grasp that he was interested in them, not in channeling their thoughts into his views on moral issues or politics. The best anyone could tell, he had none. He taught philosophy from a historical perspective, not a way to look at life. He livened up his lectures with details about philosopher’s lives, the times they lived in and the cultures they came from. I only know this because I’ve met several of his former students, they tell similar stories.”
Janah, “Sounds like a well grounded and companionable man.”
Mrs. Epstein, “Yes, he abhorred posturing idealism, one of the reasons he demurred from serving on committees or taking part in petty divisions of academic life.”
Janah, “The more politically aggressive instructors probably liked it that there was one less opinionated competitor to deal with.”
Mrs. Epstein, “Precisely. A few resented his detachment, they wanted allies, of course. But he declined so politely, it was hard to bear any serious grudges. His classes were well attended, he made money for the university and since his life needs were simple, he was able to retire comfortably.”
“He’s near invisible, he created problems for no one during his career, practically saintly, he must be even less of a threat now. What is the problem?”
“A sloppy attempt to break in his house and he was accosted on another occasion. He has nothing of such value that robbery makes much sense, the robber didn’t know what he was doing, he kicked in the back door when the professor left on a short errand. When he heard the car return ten minutes later, he bolted.”
“So he either thought he could grab something quick, or hoped for more time. Either way, you’re right, it’s not professional. And there was a subsequent attack?”
“Professor James was whapped on the head from behind on his evening walk, knocked to the ground and the attacker disappeared. Nothing was taken, no threat issued. There seems to be no purpose in it at all.”
“Coincidence? There’s a smash and grab by one guy, the second physical attack just a punk who seized an opportunity to whap an old man.”
“That’s what he thought at first. But given his nature, he kept turning it over in his mind. He had a life of virtually no conflict. He has no enemies, he is financially comfortable, but his money is in a brokerage account, not laying around his house. He isn’t a collector of antiques, art or even stamps. His books include a few first editions, but they weren’t stolen. The rest of his library is predictable, several dozen books on philosophy, standard classics, but not valuable. In his words, ‘I’m interested in the content, not the binding, I’m not a book collector.’
He has a computer, it wasn’t touched. According to him, there’s nothing in it he wouldn’t share with anyone who asked. It’s not of the slightest interest or value. Just his papers and class notes. He hasn’t written a tell all autobiography, there’s nothing to tell that anyone would pay him to write.”
Janah, “So he’s stymied. He can’t put together a reason for the events, but feels there is one. They must have happened close together.”
“All within a month, three weeks actually.”
“So someone is trying to intimidate him.”
Janah, “It’s not for something he has. Or rather I should say, it’s not for something he knows he has. That means there’s something in his head he doesn’t know the value of, or something in his house that someone wants. More likely the latter. He has no clue as to what that is.”
Mrs. Epstein, “He’s come to the same conclusion. He called a friend of mine, a former student of his, and he called me. The former student is loosely connected to the Society. He doesn’t know about the Society, but he knows we have resources to help with intractable problems. The immediate mission is to protect James. The goal is to discover what the intruder wants and to stop him from getting it by harassing a kind, quiet gentleman.”
“Nikko and I can keep him safe, Janah can figure out the mystery.”
Mrs. Epstein, “That’s what I thought. Can you go hop over to Long Island and handle this, as discreetly as possible? We can create a persona for you that provides cover. My idea to that you are the daughter of one of his former students. You would be the right age. You are there to visit him because your father or mother is convinced some time with him will be worthwhile. Perhaps you have a personal problem that needs a dispassionate listener. I don’t know, maybe you’ll think of something else, but the cover doesn’t need a lot of elaboration.”
Janah, “No, too much detail provides inexplicable holes. I’ll keep it simple. The more difficult problem is how to explain Daphne and Nikko.”
Mrs. Epstein, “I’m hoping you’ll figure that out.”
“We could be friends along for the ride, or friends concerned about her welfare, like she’s prone to depression, exhibited suicidal behavior. Or even a group of three philosophy grad students seeking some advice or insight into a paper Janah’s writing.”
Janah, “Let me think it over. The Society can get us registered at NYU or Columbia I’m assuming. Create an academic record that, if anyone investigated would be verified by the university.”
Mrs. Epstein, “What grade point average would you like?”
“I want a four point, with benefits.”
Janah giggles, “Don’t get carried away. What do you know about Heidegger and Kant?”
I rattled off the core premises of their work, and a few varied critiques.
Janah, “Okay, point taken. You can go into my head and quote passages. I didn’t even realize the stuff was in there anymore.”
“See, I know you better than you do.”
Nikko, “We going to get a plan or play mental games?’
Janah, “I’m thinking the daughter of a former student has enough strength to justify a visit to Dr. James’ home. Let’s not bother to create a persona for me, if I think it’s necessary later on, I’ll let you know. We can set it up so that Daphne, Nikko and Chan are invisible. I’ll figure out covering the house and Professor James on the way up. We need two cars, nondescript, but my student car should be something a female grad student would drive, a Honda or Prius. The other car should be an SUV but not an Escalade or anything showy. Just enough fold down in the back to stretch out for a few hours if we decide to do surveillance. Dark windows, pull down shades. All the normal listening stuff. Oh, and equipment to sweep the house for bugs. I don’t think anything is there, but maybe the break in was just to plant a monitor covered by what looked like a botched burglary.”
Mrs. Epstein, “The usual assortment of drugs and typical lodgings?”
Janah, “If there’s an apartment complex or a house for rent near the professor’s that’s good. If we need drugs, I’ll call. We have things in our own collection for making people unconscious or sleepy. This isn’t sounding like a job needing heavy pharmaceuticals.”
Mrs. Epstein, “I can have everything tomorrow afternoon. It’s about fifty or sixty miles to Stony Brook, James lives a few miles from campus, same house for the last ten years. It’s summertime, the place will have a lot of extra apartments and house rentals. Details will be on the website, any necessary instructions for keys will be there as well. Anything left unresolved will be taken care of by the time you arrive.”
Chapter Thirty Six IV
The couple of times we’ve been in a college town, people are sitting around,
drinking expensive flavored coffee and tapping on various digital devices.
I don’t see the point of paying tuition for what you can do just for buying coffee anywhere in Greenwich Village.
“Daphne, call the moms and fill them in, Nikko, can you get us packed? Make sure I look like a graduate student, not impoverished, just casual, not mini skirted or sloppy. Sort of an upscale one.”
She asks Chan, “Is this a good time, is Ning arranged with the children?’
Chan looks at her.
Janah smiles, “Ning had it arranged about two seconds after I mentioned the trip didn’t she?”
“Between the moms, Ms. Lacy, Ning’s family and Nikko’s family, Ning may have nothing to do at all. She may not see David or Miyako the entire time.”
“I should have known. Do you want them at the temple instead?”
“Family is best. Ning doesn’t mind. David loves his aunts and grandmothers, he will have them on the roof or in the park all day”
Janah, “Okay then. No point in belaboring that. Chris and Susan are staying here while we’re out anyway. Go to your wife, I’ll call when we’re ready to leave.”
Chris and Susan show up ten minutes later with a cosmetic bag and a change of clothes, Kara is with them.
Janah, “K-mom! Where’s dad?” she kisses her mother.
Kara, ‘Working. There’s a week-long conference at the hospital, I won’t see him anyway, he’s out at seven, back at ten. I’m staying here, he’ll get more rest. I want to be with the children and visit with Ning. She, Lacy and I can yoga together. It’s kind of a two block vacation. Ning asked me to help her start to paint, we’ll have fun. She’ll never get to see her children anyway, she may as well try her hand at painting.”
I come in from the bedroom, “Dang, now I don’t want to leave, the party’s just starting. Nikko! The moms are here, come say hi, then bye.”
Nikko appears, then Ning, Chan and the children are here, David runs to Chris, she holds out her hand, he grabs it with both of his and she curls him like a weight, their favorite game. She lifts him to her shoulders, where he stands motionless, then leaps off to the mat and rolls forward as his father taught him. Miyako screeches, she loves his tricks. Then she looks around for Nikko, spots her, holds out her arms and begins babbling, which means Nikko is supposed to sing to her. Nikko sings her favorite, “Brave Samurai” while Miyako lays silently.
If they keep it up, no one will get anyplace, “If this family gets any bigger, we’re going to have to start leaving the day before we leave. Somebody kiss dad for us all, apparently he’s the only one who has to work for a living.”
Chan and I take the bags, Nikko the technical necessities, then we’re gone to solve a mystery with neither a long cast of suspects nor a butler. Nikko and I take the SUV, a plain as day black four wheel drive Nissan Pathfinder, Janah and Chan the Honda, a sporty 2008 two door Accord, and we drive the sixty miles to Stony Brook.
Stony Brook is what’s known as a hamlet, one of fifty or so in the larger town of Brookhaven. While Stony Brook has fifteen thousand people, Brookhaven approaches half a million. It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to Long Island Sound to the west. Brookhaven includes the once infamous Fire Island, a gay anything goes community back in the sixties and seventies. The reputation persists, but the price of real estate has, like Greenwich Village, deteriorated much of the freewheeling ambiance.
Janah answers the cell, it’s Mrs. Epstein, “We’ve rented a small house, a block from Ezra’s. It has a private drive, surrounded by tall shrubbery and fences and can accommodate everyone, there are three bedrooms.
Janah, “I’ll call Professor James, arrange to meet him. The others will scan the professor’s place for bugs while he and I meet.”
“Call if you need anything.”
They click off.
An hour later, Nikko and I are in the grocery. Janah and Chan are checking the house, the proximity is perfect. Chan takes a walk to scope out approaches to the professor’s place.
Chan, “It’s not secluded, but not so open as to let any neighbor know who is in or out.”
Janah, “I’m thinking there’s something in the house someone wants. The professor is just an inconvenience. If they kill him, the police seal off the place. That just creates access problems. When the break in didn’t work out, they tried injuring the professor with the idea he might be in the hospital for a couple of days. Then they could get into the house for a longer stretch.”
Chan, “Except they didn’t hurt him badly enough to hospitalize him,”
Janah, “Yes. Which is encouraging. They want to go through the house, but they aren’t sure that the thing they seek is really there. If it isn’t, they don’t want to kill someone to find nothing.”
“Or if they kill him and still don’t find the mystery object, they’ve created more problems getting access to the property.”
Janah, “At least until the ownership is settled. That could take a long time, probate tends to take forever. We have an advantage. I’m here to help the professor unravel a mystery he doesn’t understand. That means I can be completely upfront about our theories, He doesn’t seem to be hiding something intentionally. I guess it’s a possibility, I’ll sort that out when I talk to him.”
Chan, “When will that be?’
Janah, “I’m calling him now. I’ll meet him for coffee, you investigate the house.”
Janah calls the professor and arranges to meet him at a coffee shop three blocks away. Nikko drives her in the Accord. She can wait across the street and keep an eye on them. Chan and I go to James’ place, picking the lock is child’s play. We methodically search for anything resembling a listening device, camera or motion detector, nothing. I haul the detector through the rooms, more nothing. He isn’t being monitored.