Chapter Seventy Three

Amaya and Chloe are up and out before the rest of us stir. I make coffee and tea in the room, while it brews I check the balcony, there's a crow sitting on the railing. I open the balcony door and walk out.
Crow, "The owl says you can speak to us."
"Yes, thank you for coming."
"You are looking for the worst of your kind, he said you will kill them."
"Yes, if they are what we call Shadows."
"There is a flock, four, living in the mountains near my nest. One killed my mate, for no reason. She was collecting for the nest, due to lay her eggs. The one held out his hand, I could see the blast of energy, she was smashed against the tree, her neck broken. The human laughed and went inside."

I sigh, "I am sorry to hear it, sorry for the loss of a mate and her fledglings to be. He will pay for his cruelty."
"I would attack him myself, but I have not seen him again."
"Don't get yourself injured or killed. Can you guide us to them?"
"Of course."

Eloise comes out, "He find a Shadow?"
"A few. We need to be able to track him back to the location, he doesn't know from directions. Can you use the drone?"
"I could, but it would be simpler to attach a small GPS to him, would he allow that?"
"My companion says we can track you with a small device. She will attach it to you, it won't interfere with your flying. It isn't permanent, we can take it off."
"You have it now?"

"Eloise, do you have one here?"
"I brought trackers for the drone, Spark Nano, they only weigh three ounces, but it's two and a half inches long. Can he carry it in his mouth if I put it in a small pouch? If not, I'll order something, they make GPS to track birds."
"See what you can rig with the tracker we have."
I get a cup of coffee, cup of water for my new friend, crush up a granola bar and put it out for him. I have no idea if crows eat granola.
He hops down, takes a drink, plucks at the granola, turns out they do, at least this one does.
"We have a tracker here, but it may be too big. She's going to fix up something and you can try it out."
No reply, he's busy eating, a few minutes later Eloise returns. She has the tracker in a small nylon pouch.
"I keep change in here, the tracker just fits."
It has loops to pull closed, she knots the two loops and hands it to me.
"Can you carry this long enough to get where you need to go?"
I open the loop and hold it out, he hops over and opens his beak, I hook it on, he closes down on the cord, flies up to the railing. The makeshift contraption dangles but he doesn't drop it.
"It's on," I show him the IPad with the blinking light on Google Maps, "If you can fly with it long enough to get home, we get the location on this machine. Stop at the place the Shadows live. Just drop the device someplace nearby, we can find it. Maybe take a test flight around the hotel, see how it feels to carry it."
He takes off, flies up, disappears around the side of the hotel, a minute later he's back, pouch dangling from his beak.
"I can fly it."
"Then take it where it needs to go. When it stops moving, we will find it and the Shadows. And don't get too near them. No closer than from here to the water. If you wait near the tracker, we will see you later today, before the sun is in the west."

He's up and gone, we watch the dot slide along, as the crow flies takes on a more personal meaning.
Janah, "That was neat. We need to get smaller trackers and a way to attach them to birds."
Eloise, "They make those already, I just don't have any."
"Have some sent here, we can give them a test run. Meanwhile, let's get breakfast, it's going to be a busier day than we planned."
We go to the Coast, the only place that serves breakfast at Shutters. Janah has a breakfast skillet, roasted eggplant, spicy tomato, poached eggs, I opt for corned beef hash, poached eggs, Eloise surprises me a little, skirt steak, tomatoes, scrambled eggs.
Eloise, "I'm really hungry, felt like I needed a protein shot."
"Good, we might make lunch or we might not."
Eloise, "When we find them, what happens?"
"I'm taking the air gun and darts. Load the drone with Oblivion, and be careful with it."

Chapter Seventy Four

“Janah, alert the Society, we may need resources, Minders, Extraction, Cleaners.”
“Already done, let’s move.”
By the time we get in the Escalade, the GPS had been stationary for an hour. The tracker is in Bel Air, eleven miles, half hour or so in LA traffic this time of day. We drive up Stone Canyon Road, our targets, if they are targets, aren't poor. Houses are two million up, about seven hundred a square foot.
We find the tracker in a vacant lot, about a hundred yards from a standalone home on Stone Canyon. The houses are surround by high hedges, privacy is an issue. There are lots of trees in the hilly area, plenty of places for the crow to nest.
He swoops down as I'm collecting the tracker.
"House to the north."
"You did well. We will investigate, hang around if you wish."

He flaps off to the top of a tree with a sight line to the house. I return to the car.
I ask Janah, "What now, we don't have a Sensitive, we can bring Chloe back after she's done for the day. You and I can spot them if we see them, harder to tell if they are inside a house."
Janah, "I don’t doubt the bird. Cars are either gone on in the garage, that lets out sticking the tracker on one. We can sit here and wait, see if somebody leaves. Not so simple to just stay parked out here, this is an upscale neighborhood, going to be patrols. Find a spot where we can pull out of the way, we'll hike up the hills with the drone and fly it over the house. Maybe see somebody leave or hear a conversation."
I'm checking Google Earth. Appears to be a patch of dead space if I circle around east, a small valley with only one house and a dead end road. I check it out.
"This is perfect, guess someone could hike around the hills, doesn't look like this stretch of dirt gets much vehicular traffic."
"Eloise, launch the drone, let's see what we can get."
I see the crow circling over head, curious birds, he's keeping distance from the drone.
She's got it over the house, drops it down helicopter style, tests various windows for sound. The microphone gets nothing until she moves to the rear of the place, likely the kitchen. Kitchen sounds, clear, must be a window open. Sink, garbage disposal, then a voice, male.
"I'm going out."
Female, "Our entertainment is getting stale down there."
Male, "So it is. Do as you wish with it, hopefully something interesting will turn up for me to bring home. Where are our converts?"
Female, "Getting ready for their swim. When they've finished, we will deal with the thing. Our perverts like finishing off the entertainment. Where are you shopping today?"
Male, "Mall, kids have so many school holidays, malls are full of fresh product."
"Not the same mall?"
"Don’t be stupid. See you later."
Janah, "Daphne, follow the car, stick here long enough to get a description. We're going to check out what they mean by converts."
Eloise flies the drone to the garage, she's up a hundred feet. The garage door slides open, a tan nondescript Mercedes backs out. She zooms in for the license plate, I get it fixed in my head, it heads down Stone Canyon south. The drone tracks it until I pull in a couple of blocks behind.
"I'm on him, she can take the drone back to the house."
I concentrate on the matter at hand, don't try and see what Janah's doing. She won't be able to tell if the 'converts' are Shadows, not from the drone camera. She has to physically see them, and be fairly close, more than twenty or twenty five yards and the aura fades.
The man drives a half hour, only minutes in California freeway time. Finally, he pulls off the 405 and drives to the Northridge Fashion Center. It's got the same stores as every other mall in the United States, same anchor tenants, same business plan, keep the doors open until the Christmas shopping season. Get kids into the movie theaters and food court. Malls are for adolescents like dance clubs for the twenty crowd. Go in, wander around aimlessly, malls have sugar filled drinks, clubs have alcohol filled ones, frequently including a sugary mixer.
"Either our boy needs new sneakers, or he's sneaking up on something else. I'm following him in."
Janah, "He won't try dealing with you in a mall, you should be able to get close enough to check him out. Our teens are swimming laps, one girl, one boy, swimsuits are the birthday variety. The woman is poolside watching. I'm climbing the hill, I have to get close enough to see what we've got."
Nothing I can do to make it safer from here. I return to my target. He's got a cup of coffee, just roaming around. Then I see he's casually following a couple of twelvish girls, we're on the second level, they appear to be headed toward Pacific Theaters. I slip past them on the other side of the walkway, get to the theater and go inside to the lobby. From here I can see the girls approach, the man following, sipping his coffee.
The girls stare up at the list of movies in front of the ticket booth, figuring times. Maybe they want to see an R, but have to buy a ticket for something less violent or sexy. I see a head bob up and down in a yes motion, looks like a decision is made.
As purses come open, they stop abruptly, close the purses and turn towards an exit. It's now or never. They take an escalator down, the man follows, I step on the escalator twenty feet behind him. Darkness surrounds his head. Houston, we have a problem.

Chapter Seventy Five

One bit of help, my target is focused on controlling two girls, he's got no juice to sense me behind him.
They exited the mall on the left, he's parked on the right. They have to walk the length of the place to get to his car. Can't take him just yet, a woman is dithering, trying to locate a space as close to the entrance as possible. God forbid she has to walk a extra thirty or forty feet, the spaces are wide open that far out. Do I need to say she would be better off parking a mile from the mall? She's sipping on an extra giant Starbucks frozen something or other, yes, with whip.
Enough fat shaming, although it isn't really, you don't know who she is, she doesn't know I'm dissing her. I'm not politically correct anyway, there are no plus size models who aren't fat, that’s what plus size is.
We're out of Starbucks Lady range, I see his car forty yards away, the girls on a beeline for it, time to get busy.
"Excuse me perv, but twelve isn't in your future, back off."
The man stops, realizes he's been busted, I feel him reach into my mind, I qi up, I have quite enough people in my head, don't need another, particularly not this dope.
He turns, he's not scared, Shadows don't do fear. We're faced off in a mall parking lot, while he's trying to figure out why he can't grab my brain, he loses the girls. I hear them.
"What are we doing out here? I thought we were going to a movie."
"I feel dizzy."
The do a slow walk to the curb, head to the closest entrance, I lose track of them, busy trying to keep my mind to myself.
Man, "Who are you? What do you think I'm doing? I don't know you, I'm minding my own business."
He's still working his game, trying to confuse me, backing away at the same time, he wants to bolt for the car, he wants to figure out how I'm on to him. That slight hesitation is a mistake.
I don't have an air gun, but I have darts, and while I followed him I also slipped the cover off one. I keep moving towards him, he raises a hand, points a finger. I head fake right, pull left, feel a blast of energy shoot past.
"You're losing steam, controlling the girls, now trying to get to me, how's that working out for you?"
He senses trouble, he turns to run.
He gets two steps, I jab the needle in his neck and squish it in deep. He sinks to his knees, I pull the dart, pop the needle cover on, put it in my pocket. When I look around, there's a car driving by slowly, a man and woman gawking, window comes down.
"What's the problem?"
"Looks like a heart attack," I don't want them calling 911, "can one of you get to mall security, they have training for this and can get to him before the EMTs, I've already called 911," I wave my phone at them.
The car screeches off, glad to be out of it. They can be good Samaritans without actually watching a guy have a heart attack. I pull the target between two parked cars, lift his wallet, car keys, mobile. Hustle to his car and pull the registration from his glove compartment, then use my multi tool to remove the license plate. It will take the cops a while to figure out who he is, and a longer while to figure out if the car is his. We don't need anyone showing up at his house just yet.
"Target acquired and disabled, I always wanted to say that, what's up on your end?"
Janah doesn't reply, that's not a good sign. While I look through her eyes, I hustle around the mall to our car. I see a woman bearing down on her, surrounded on either side by two naked teens. I feel her pushed back, then blasted over a patio table, there's sky, then the hills. She's having to deal with three Shadows. Even if only one is talented, that and two supports is serious.
I'm hauling it down the 405, on the phone with Eloise, "Janah's in trouble by the pool."
Eloise, "I can see it on the drone."
"Then dart them."
Eloise, "Two are teenagers."
"Doesn't matter, Shadows don't get a youth pass, shoot them all, now!"
Janah sees the girl get popped and dropped. I leave Janah's mind and look at my phone, I can see what the drone sees. The boy turns to her, his face contorted with hatred, he jumps at Janah, fist raised, Janah's occupied with the woman and doesn't see him.
"Duck!"
Janah squats, fist sails over her head, he pulls back to kick her when I see a wing, then the crow, claws sink into the boy's eyes, he screams, tries to grab the bird but the crow is gone. A dart appears in his chest, he's down.
The woman is dueling with J, I sense Janah relax, she's going deep. The woman has no chance but she doesn't know that. I see a wasted attempt to raise her hand in an attempt to bash Janah with an energy blast, then I see a dart pierce her eye. Janah blows her back into the pool, splash, blood spreads around her head, she sinks.
"You good?"
"Been better, bitch was tough, particularly with the two others."
"Can you find out what, who, they have confined? I'll grab Eloise and come to the house."
"Yes, I'm a bit beat up, but functional."

It takes me twenty minutes to get to Eloise, two to get to the house. Inside, Janah has a boy, maybe thirteen, disoriented, has no idea where he is.
Janah, "We need an extraction team."
"On the way. I had time while I drove. Put him to sleep and let's get gone. The drone can monitor until we know he's safe."
"Take a few minutes and see if we can find out anything, who these people are."
"Okay, but you get gone, drive down the street, stay clear. I doubt neighbors saw anything, but we don't want cops. If there's anything other than Extraction, I can get gone the same way you got in."

Janah and Eloise disappear, I surf the house, collect laptops and a net book, dig around office drawers and find a couple of thumb drives. I already have the man’s wallet and car registration. I take the teens ID and their IPads, all the phones I can find. Dig through the woman's purse, take her stuff too.
There's a wall safe in the office. I'm twirling the dial, listening for the clicks, the door pops open. There's a stack of cash, I stuff my pockets and a plastic grocery bag. Extraction arrives, I walk out the door as if they don't exist, they don't acknowledge me. I walk down Stone Canyon, a bag full of computers and phones, money, wallets and ID. Janah slides over, I take the wheel and we evaporate.

Chapter Seventy Six

At Shutters I call Transportation to swap cars, Janah is counting money, Eloise is hacking phones and laptops. I take one of the netbooks and start in on it.
One of the laptops has video files labeled 'entertainment1,2,3' and so on. The teens having various intimacies with the kids, then rough sex. The woman joins in if it's a boy, the man if it's a girl. I thought they might have made snuff films, but that isn't it. Turns out they disorient the child, then drop them off someplace public.
Janah, "Guess we won't know, I suspect they like the idea of the kids eventually getting home and living with the horror. Killing them is troublesome, body disposal isn't simple. We haven't looked at local police reports, how many different kids did they go through?"
"I have a dozen, three or four videos of each. This computer has no record of the files being sent anyplace, that wouldn't make sense anyway, the Shadows made no attempt to disguise themselves."
Eloise, "The two teens are brother and sister, son and daughter to the two adults. They are also intimates. So far, no indication mom and dad joined the fun. But there's a fair amount of video of the siblings having sex. Looks like they filmed themselves, the camera remains stationary, doesn't look like anyone is filming them, no sound of anyone else in the room."
"Fun family."
Janah, "We have six hundred fifty thousand in cash. The bills are not sequential, looks like money they got people to give them. That house must be worth three million at least. Find out if they have a mortgage, one of our shell companies will buy it. If there's a mortgage, it will pay that, then sell the house. If we can find out who the kids are, we can spread the money out to them. Won't fix their psychological problems, but they can get something."
"How's your gut?"
Janah, "Bruised and sore. I need to lay down with gel packs and qi."
I work on her for an hour, then freeze her up, she falls asleep.
Eloise, "If they know other Shadows, it isn't evident from their e-mail or texts. They got very few calls, e-mail is mostly spam, confirmations of orders from Amazon, stuff like that. The two teens went to a private high school, no evidence they joined clubs or had much interaction with other students."
"Shadows don't play well with others. Let me guess, straight A students."
"Yep, both of them. Must have had fun controlling teachers and admin."
"It would be good practice, and safe, impossible to get caught. What's a teacher going to say, I gave her an A because she told me to? The teacher was convinced the work merited an A. I don't know, we didn't talk to them, maybe they're just smart."
We've shot the day, it's tea time. Janah needs to get up, I make tea, get in her head and wake her.
"Need to stir or you'll be up half the night, tea is ready."
We sit on the balcony and enjoy the late afternoon view of the ocean, the crow glides to the railing.
"You did well with the boy, thank you."
Crow, "I saw the ones at the house, your flying machine shot them. What of the male?"
"He died in a parking lot after trying to take the minds of two young females."

I get up and find a granola bar, crush it and pour it out on the balcony then fetch a cup of water.
Interesting scene, we sip tea, the crow pecks at granola, takes a drink from the cup.
"How many suns will you be here?"
"Not sure, ten or fifteen."
"I will tell others, they can find you here?"
"We will be in and out. They can wait here, or you may be able to describe us well enough, they can find us, More will be joining us tonight."

Crow, "They kill?"
"If it's a Shadow."
"It will be good to talk of humans who understand."
"They don't all speak with animals, that's just me or her,"
I point to Janah.
"I will tell it as you say, time to find a mate," he flaps up to the railing, then launches himself and off. Crows live seven or eight years, can't spare one to sit around grieving the loss of a mate. He's doing what he knows to do, find a new mate, raise a new family.

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