Chapter Sixty Nine

Days pass, Daria and Susan have hacked e-mails, phones, chatter is ongoing but nothing to indicate either a target date or place.
Amaya, "Maybe it's just talk, a floated idea that's going nowhere."
"Could be. We can't even guarantee they're Shadows, we haven't had a firsthand look. For all we know, it's a gaggle of devil worshipers with an active fantasy life."
"Let's send Chloe and Zi. We know where these people are. Fly to three or four and see what turns up."
Amaya, "Together or separate?"
Janah, "I think together, they can surround a target, get the sense of them, leave. That's all we want, just to know if we're dealing with Shadows. If we read two as positives, the rest are going to be Shadows. They aren't going to include normals in a plan, they barely trust each other, never normals. Amaya can drive, Nikko should go in case something goes sideways. That's enough for reconnaissance. We aren't supposed to be making contact, get a clear read and come home."
"I have two in the same city, Atlanta."
Nikko, "I'll call Blue Sky. Early flight, we can be in and out the same day."
I'm up early, they leave at five, I have coffee prepared. Amaya will drive one of our cars to Teterboro, Blue Sky will provide breakfast on the two hour flight and a waiting SUV in Atlanta. They pick up an hour in time zones, be in Atlanta for seven thirty latest. The targets are a thirty minute drive, maybe an hour with Atlanta traffic, but they aren't going to or through the city and the homes are only twenty minutes apart. With any luck, they’re flying home by noon.
I follow through Nikko's eyes. Amaya navigates like a rocket with the GPS, they're down the block from the first place by eight fifteen. Shadows as a rule don't have day jobs. When you can get people to go to their bank and withdraw thousands, then hand it to you and forget they did it, why show up at a job? Some Shadows work, sort of. They set up as insurance agents, real estate brokers, investment advisors, bilk people out of money. Harder work for Shadows, they have to fake being nice, but bigger money than a few grand from a savings account. Our targets appear to settle for the simpler route.
Chloe and Zi get out at different ends of the block. Zi has to approach carefully, Shadows sense Shaolin, their hated for us is palpable. We do vow to kill them, an irritant to people who already have a short fuse. Chloe goes down the right side of the house, then around back, Zi lingers to the left front. Chloe returns to her corner, Zi is already in the car. Amaya drives to collect Chloe, heads to the second target.
Zi, "No doubt."
Chloe, "Yes, black as deep woods on a dark night. This one is male, and as powerful as we've encountered."
Amaya, "Swell. Settle back, ETA is twenty."
Second check is not as bad as the first, still not good.
Chloe, "She's not where the first one is, but she's no novice. I wouldn't be anxious to face either of them alone, even with the element of surprise and my katana."
Nikko, "Bad news in under an hour, let's see what Janah and the others say."
I've filled in everyone, Janah can see in Nikko's mind the same as me.
I mental Amaya, "Amaya, call us, let's hash this out so everyone can hear at the same time."
She does, I answer the satellite phone’s short buzz. We don’t use ringtones on any of our phones, nobody wants to hear crappy music.
Dasha, "Why not keel Shadow right away?"
"Because it warns off the others. At least we think it might. Shadows are unpredictable. We could kill those two and it wouldn't change a thing about their plan. Or they could drop it and walk away to other nasty projects."
Janah, "Dasha has a point. If they are all Shadows, why do we care what the plot du jour is?"
Nikko, "True. We're just going to deal with them anyway, and we're here."
Daria, "We also know where the others are, we can have them all recycled by the end of the week."
Janah, "Our Sensitives report a dangerous Shadow, and a second that's no slouch. We have three fighters with a couple of knives, not even a katana. We don't need to get this started today. Better to make a plan and use drones."
Amaya, "If they were killing children tomorrow, then we do it today, but they aren't. I say you get on a plane and work this out in an orderly manner."
Nikko, "Waiting makes sense. We'll see you in a few hours."
We click off.
"Let's dig in on an operational plan. It's better to confront them individually at home base than wait for them to collect in some town. Right now, they're spread out across the South and Midwest. We should have sent a drone with them and saved another plane ride."
"Janah, we didn't know they were Shadows, that's what they went to find out. No Shadows, a bunch of us are on a wasted trip."
Amaya, "I haven't sensed a plan in Daphne's head."
"We've mapped locations. There are three cities with two, one with three. The other six are dotted out one to a town. We've been mulling over approaches. Do we go to a city, follow them around and wait for a drone shot? Or go more proactive, confront at home with a dart gun?"
Nikko, "That's unanswerable, we can't sit around in ten towns and do Shadow surveillance."
Janah, "No, and we can't use Society Surveillance, too dangerous. We are eleven. If we do four, four and three, that's three cities each, one leftover. Each team has three drones, one of the new minis, two of the bigger models. Overkill, but better to have backup."
Zi, "How do we divide up?"
"We have to have someone who can spot Shadows in each team, Chloe is in one, Zi in another, Janah in a third."
Nikko, "I'd feel better if we had two crews. It will take more time, but we can pack more power with six and five. The first two are not half formed, they are full on Shadows."
Janah, "Good point, your way is better. Let's do the multi cities first. We might go with smaller numbers for the singletons, we can decide that later."
"Okay, then...let's see...Amaya, Chloe, Janah, me, Sloane and Oceane. Nikko, Zi, Dasha, Daria and Eloise. Work for everyone?"
Nikko, "Better, lots of qi power in both groups, if something goes messy with the drones or dart guns, that's our next best weapon."
"And a Shaolin in each group, in case we need to irritate a Shadow, they get stupid when they sense a priest."
Janah, "Then it's settled. Daphne, please make travel plans, start with Atlanta and Chicago, then we see about Milwaukee and St. Louis, singles after that."
Initial plan in place, I find hotels, common Hamptons or Embassy Suites will do. They're anonymous, clean, decent breakfast included, we aren't likely to be getting much in the way of lunch or dinner. They are also ubiquitous, Hampton is the Starbucks of hotel chains.
It's tea time, get everyone back on the phone, "Nikko, Amaya, Chloe and Zi are already in Atlanta. The rest of us will come tomorrow with the drones, then Nikko, Zi, Daria, Dasha and Eloise will deal with Atlanta, the rest of us will take the same plane to Chicago. Relax and find someplace to have dinner, don’t know how much fine dining we'll get in the next few days."
Daria, "Call David Li, we don't keep much Oblivion here."
"Already done."

Chapter Seventy

Nikko's group of five takes Atlanta, there are two Shadows there. Our group of six takes Chicago, where there are three. We're outside the first target's apartment, it's a man we think, the name on the phone records is Pat, not indicative of gender.
Chloe, "I'll take a walk, verify, are we launching a drone?"
Janah, "Yep, Oceane will be overhead."
Chloe, "Back in a bit," she eases out of the passenger door of the Escalade. I'm in the sedan with Sloane. Janah and Oceane are in the SUV with Amaya.
It's a gated complex, but it's Monday, the gates are wide open as tenants roll out to jobs or take kids to school. Chloe walks past the address we have, number 1078, a downstairs corner. She lingers on the sidewalk, then down the walkway around the far side of the building. The place is separate blocks with eight apartments each, two stories. Must be thirty buildings, couple of pools, a small gym with typical weight machines, treadmills and stationary bikes. Nothing fancy, well maintained, landscaped, not high end luxury. It's funny with Shadows, they can get almost unlimited amounts of money from people, but they don't live rich. Shadows we've encountered have mid-priced cars, nothing new or flashy. They haven't lived in million dollar gated communities, or bought estates on the hill overlooking the ocean. Janah thinks that the ability to control minds is far more ego trip than ten thousand square feet in Malibu. And Shadows are loners, extreme loners, they aren't driven to impress. If they want sex, just take a mind, if they want a gourmet dinner, show up, get a table, order, eat and walk out. They have no reason to display wealth, in fact, it's a drawback. Someone may wonder where it came from, raise the curiosity of neighbors, the police, the IRS. Better to keep a low profile, a common schmuck that attracts no attention.
Chloe  returns to the SUV.
"It's a man. Dark, not so deadly dark as Atlanta, but not to be taken for granted."
Janah, "I'm going to knock on his door, Oceane will do what she does when he answers."
"No, I'm security chief and you stay in the car. Sloane will knock, then Oceane will dart his Shadow butt and we move on."

Janah, "Okay, but why Sloane?"
"You are Shaolin, not a priest, but from the temple. He may sense you because I am you and you are me. Sloane doesn't carry that scent. She's also fast enough to get out of harm's way if she needs to."

Janah, "Go for it then."
"Sloane, get him to the door, if he's cautious, kick it open enough so Oceane can get a shot."
I get online with Janah, "Update Oceane, make damn sure Sloane is not in the line of fire."
Janah, "Relax mommy, do you think Oceane will dart Sloane? She'd dart herself first."
Sloane doesn't hear our mental conversation, but she says, "Oceane isn't going to stick me mom, chill, it's all good," out she goes.
I'm normally not nervous, usually the more danger, the lower my heart rate gets. But I don't usually have my daughter face to face with a Shadow. So, yeah, there's a flutter in my gut.
She knocks, curtain pulls on the window, the guy sees a teenager, and a girl, and he's a Shadow. In his mind, she can't do jack, and may even provide some light entertainment.
The door opens, "Girl Scout cookies? You aren't a Jehovah's Witness are you?"
Sloane smiles, "Hardly, but my mom's a Shaolin priest."
Never saw a face go from placid to livid instantaneously, until today. He reaches for her, she steps back, he lunges, she's in the courtyard at first lunge. He blinks, shakes his head, how's she move so fast? His terminal thought.
A dart in his chest, just about heart level, he drops to his knees. Sloane snatches the dart and zips back to the car, as I pull away, I notice him lying across the concrete walkway, face first in the grass.
"Good thinking on the dart, I forgot to remind you."
Sloane, "We always try to collect the darts. The drug disappears in the body, I know we don't want traces left in the syringe to be analyzed."
"We don't know if they can even figure out what they'd be looking at, but better not to give them a chance. Just don't take unnecessary risks to collect a used dart. David Li uses plant extracts forensics people and botanists never heard of. Over the years, he's developed plants that don't exist anyplace but the temple. He says they can test all they want, but they can't replicate the compounds, even synthetically. Still, better to remove the evidence, chemical analysis is pretty sophisticated now."
Sloane, "Where's the container?"
"Amaya has it, when we stop you can stick it....no, don't stick it, don't even think stick it, put it away."
“I took the antidote mom.”
“I know, we all did, but we’ve never tested it. I’d rather not have to.”
We have a lined metal box with a ceramic lining full of bleach to keep used darts. All traces of the drug are gone instantly, Amaya or Daria destroy the darts. We could reuse them, but the syringe and needles have to be cleaned carefully. We just use new ones. Some we buy from Dan-inject, and we use their rifles. High quality, durable, never had a fail. We can use their darts in our drones, but Eloise and Daria also have far sturdier versions manufactured in China. Those can pierce windshields, we needed a different delivery system because of it. Normally the first thing the dart hits is the target, and the tranquilizer is instantly injected. That won't work if the first thing it hits is a windshield or plate of window glass. They designed a needle like a skinny hollow point bullet. Exterior needle is to puncture the window, the dart slides forward at impact. Then it's like any regular dart, a small ball or percussion cap at the back of the dart releases compressed air driving the liquid into the target. It happens in milliseconds, no different than a bullet.
We drive to Starbucks, collect coffee and tea, then pile into the Escalade to recap.
Janah, "Nikko checked in, their first target, the man, is done. He made the mistake of being healthy, they got him leaving his house for a morning jog. It was nothing to have the drone poke a dart in his back. Zi snapped up the dart as they drove by, also got his house key, they're going treasure hunting."
Janah, "We couldn't do a home visit, not with the target dead in an apartment courtyard. Which reminds me, call Susan and tell her she can start hacking his stuff. Time to clean out bank accounts.
Amaya, "Next up for us is a woman, middle aged, middle eastern from the name, Ahlam Malouf."
Janah, "Might be Syrian, but Arabic names overlap shifting Middle East borders."
"I take it she's not a Muslim."
Amaya, "No clue. Given the number of psychopaths calling themselves Muslim, she could be."

Chapter Seventy One

Malouf lives only seven miles from the first target, another low profile neighborhood. A red Honda Civic of indeterminate vintage is in the drive. I'm in the second car, talking with the others mentally.
Amaya, "She's got some sad wheels."
"Maybe it's the housekeeper's car."

Chloe goes to see if she's home, skirts the edge of the small front yard. The neighborhood is bunched together frame houses, two stories. Some with battered chain link fences others open to whoever. Most of them could use paint.
Amaya, "Nobody in this hood uses a housekeeper."
"You have a point."
"Sis says she's in our guy's bank account, Daria will call her from Atlanta, she may be able to hack that one right from his house."

Amaya, "Any money?"
"She says twenty thousand, but there are transfers to and from a brokerage account, she's not in that one yet."

Janah, "Daphne, these places are close together, and there are a couple of porch sitters just down the block. We need to draw her away from the house, or get a tracker on the car. We can't sit out here long."
"I'll get close enough to the house to freak her, maybe she'll go after me. Get the drone airborne. If I can get her a few blocks away, we can take her."

"Sloane, Oceane, go to the SUV, I'm going to get our target to follow me in her car. Oceane, launch the drone, when I have her down the road, I'll stop. She'll come for me, you can pop her then."
They transfer, I get out of the sedan and walk to the house. The places sit close to the street, it isn't twenty yards to her front door. I pass by twice, nothing. If she's in the back, I may be just out of range, or she's otherwise distracted. I go up the steps and walk the small porch, then hop over the rail and slip down the side. I smell coffee too long on the burner, a voice.
"You tell Evan to hold his water. We must all discuss first, he is not to decide alone what city we take. Three are under consideration, and I agree he makes a good case for the second, we haven't heard all the reports yet. When we have, then it is time to pick one."
I hear a phone flip down and snap, then feet scramble towards the wall I'm next to. There's a window, a clasp opens, I slip to the front corner. Her head pokes out, I let her see me from the back moving to the sidewalk. The window slams shut.
I fiddle around outside my car, she cracks the front window curtain briefly, then the front door opens, something in Aramaic, doesn't sound friendly. I get in the car, Malouf comes out of the house, I look over at her and drive down the street.
Out of the rear view, she screeches out of her driveway, stops, throws the car into drive and guns it towards me. I hit the gas.
Her old Honda is no match for my new fat Buick rental, I cut and weave just fast enough stay a couple of blocks ahead. Then I see my spot, an alley between two brick buildings, not a street, but not a dead end either. It's for deliveries and open on both ends. It's quiet now, no trucks, no people, just a couple of dumpsters and smaller trash cans. I pull in, go to the far exit and stop. The red Civic turns in and approaches slowly. I get out and face the car.
The Civic screams forward, guess she thinks she might smash me, but I'm next to the bigger sedan, not behind it. All she would accomplish is mangling her crapmobile, with her in it. Brakes squeal, the small car noses down, must need shocks or struts, whatever, suspension is sloppy. She exits, slams the door, this is not a happy lady.
"A fucking priest, where are your robes, priest? Did you think you could hide your stink from me? I have killed three like you already. Now, it is your turn."
I sense her probing, looking for a way in, but I have my own mental qi, and I'm being juiced by Janah. Malouf is good, but has no chance. She's almost crimson from the energy effort, backs off.
"You are talented, priest. I will let you live, for now. I have friends here, we will not rest until you are dead."
"Is one of them Pat, chunky guy with a mustache, short, wears glasses, in a gated apartment complex about five miles south?"
She doesn't reply, but it's clear she knows who I'm talking about, "He's not having a good day. As a matter of fact, he's not having any more days, good or bad."
Her eyes widen, struck a nerve, then narrow, angry, "There are more of us, now I have you clearly in my senses. We will come, you will die for your self-righteous interference...painfully."
She turns to her car, head snaps up, looks at me, eyes wide. Syringe protrudes from her neck, the red feathered tail of the dart waves gently, she collapses against the car door and slides to the asphalt.
I retrieve the dart, quick check of the car, she didn't bother with a purse.
"You at the house?"
Janah, "Yes, found cash, a few thousand actually, in a desk drawer. We're taking her laptop, you can fish through it later."
"Take her phone too, she left in a rush, it isn’t here, keep Sloane and Oceane with you, let's finish this today if we can."

Follow Amaya through town, the last target is furthest away, twenty miles west, Oak Brook.
Janah, "This one isn't living downscale, it's one of the wealthiest villages in the country. He's got a day job, investment advice."
I peek in Nikko's head while we drive, "What's up?"
"Chasing around the woman. She wasn't at home, Daria had her phone tracked though, she was shopping, then to a health club. We caught up just as she went inside, no chance for a shot."
"She trying to lose weight, or already athletic?"
"From the brief backside view, athletic. Usual uniform, yoga pants, skin snug top, sweatband, pony tail, bottle of water. Didn't get an age, she's smallish, maybe five four."
"We wrapped the woman here, one left, headed there now. We had one with a middlebrow life, the woman lived lowbrow, this one is in a highbrow enclave. You can tell because they call it a village. Rich people like quaint stuff. I guess it makes them feel human without having to actually mingle with poor people."

Nikko, "We're rich, we don't have jack that's quaint, unless you count Janah's antique fabric dress fetish."
"Good point, wonder where we went wrong?"

Nikko, "Our target is leaving, talk later."

Chapter Seventy Two

We're outside Jeremy Dickey's biggie size manse, the 'village' is filled with them. I shouldn't dis villages, we live in Greenwich Village after all, and everyone calls it The Village. With the further quaint confusion of being pronounced Grinich not Green-which.
Asides aside, Janah's pondering the next bit, then says, "We need to find out if he's even home. He's an investment advisor, office is only a few miles from here. An independent firm, not a brokerage house."
"I'll walk with her, if he's around, maybe he comes out like the Malouf woman, fire up the drone and follow us."
We take off, down one side, big patio out back, manicured lawn, smaller guest house back here. Unlike Shadows, super size home in an attention getting hood, but like Shadows, not married, no kids. A Shadow with a guest house is weird, they don't want guests. Although they do tend toward the forbidden sexually, some do bondage, underage is popular, enjoy making parents, children and siblings have sex. Incest voyeurs.
I never had much of a feeling about incest, not anything I wanted to try, but it happens with curious kids, bad dads and salacious mommies. There's always Uncle Tommy and the Nubile Niece, once removed-cest. Dasha and Daria have intimate relations,  they don't do guilt about it, it's not like they're making retarded babies. It's even gone mainstream in TV shows, Game of Thrones for instance, a program we just can't get into. Too much Lord This and Her Ladyship That, everyone is either a slave or royalty, sort of like America actually.
Janah, "I called his office, he's there, not here. Should have done that in the first place. Come on back."
"Chloe's getting a feel for his capacity. Also curious, there's a guest house back here, strange for a Shadow. I'm going to sneak a peek."
"He's got an alarm system, don't rattle the windows."
"While the drone's up, get Oceane to check the upstairs windows."

I walk around the guesthouse, blinds are open, I see a kitchen, living area, common furnishings. Nothing elaborate, he didn't hire a decorator, there are no pictures on the walls. It doesn't look lived in, but it isn't quite abandoned either, maybe an occasional visitor? The main house is big enough to accommodate four or five guests comfortably, when does a guesthouse get used?
Janah, "I followed, can't figure a point either, but we know nothing of his life, I guess there are exceptions to the Shadow isolation rule. Best guess is he has out of town client visitors, either to entertain or stay overnight. Hang on, someone is pulling up, go to the side you went in on."
I catch Chloe, we backtrack to the left front of the house.
"It's a housekeeper, she'll have to turn off the alarm, we can take a look inside, hold on a sec."
Janah approaches, the small woman opens the front door and steps inside. There’s an alarm box, no beep, it isn’t engaged. Janah lays a hand on her neck, the woman stiffens, then unconscious. Janah does this little trick with qi. The base of your neck is where the brain and spinal column hook up, lots of electricity there. It's called the reticular activating system and it's responsible for consciousness. When Janah interferes with it, the brain shuts down until it can reboot the flow. It's the same reason you go unconscious from a concussion.
Chloe and I are in, we take her to the couch.
Chloe, "How long is she out?"
Janah, "Ten or fifteen. You look around in here, keep her in sight, if she stirs, call me. Daphne, take upstairs, I'll do the rest of downstairs."
Janah doesn't find much of interest, master bedroom is downstairs, Jeremy has a nice wardrobe, fine leather shoes spiffy polished. Upstairs, I'm wandering bedrooms, all clean, no luggage or clothes. Beds are made, bathrooms ready for use but clearly haven't been in a while. Tubs and showers are all clean, no drops of water on counters, no toothbrushes out. I wonder what it is the housekeeper is supposed to clean. The bedrooms each have a picture on the wall, a clue.
"See what I'm seeing?"
Janah, "Yep, all the bedrooms have paintings of children, nymph like, nude or nearly so."
"I'm going to the guesthouse, keep cleaning lady out for a bit longer. Based on what I've seen, she could clean the place in fifteen minutes including a coffee break."
The lock is simple, pick it and I'm in.
Tour the rooms, nothing stands out, open closets, use my pocket light to see what's inside. Mostly nothing. Then one is locked. Pick my way in, ah hah. More clues.
"Meet me out front, let's go."
Janah's in the car when Chloe and I get there, Sloane moves to the sedan with me, we drive to Jeremy Dickey's office.
Dickey has a place in an open air mall, upscale, no Dollar stores in sight. A stand alone Barnes and Nobel, couple floors of offices in another spot, attached to a line of retail, upscale boutique, Pei Wei restaurant, hair salon and a fine foods market. Across the lot facing the main road are individual restaurants, Mexican, Japanese, American grill that still has a fair number of cars in the lot at two thirty.
We have a confab outside the Barnes and Noble. I bring the others up to speed.
"Either Dickey has a ton of grandchildren or he's got a kiddie party barn in the guesthouse. The closets are full of costumes, kid size high heels, clothes to fit five to fourteen. It's all girl stuff, including the dominatrix outfits, short leather dresses, knee high stiletto boots, a collection of whips, lightweight stuff more to sting than injure."
Janah, "The kiddie crowd frequently dresses little boys in girl things, almost never the other way around."
Chloe, "We will want to question him then."
Janah, "Yes, Oceane, use the tranquilizer, not Oblivion. Daphne, call Transportation, we need someplace to park him while we chat. Cheap motel will do."

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