After Amaya’s off to school, we’re at the table having a second round of coffee and tea.
“Got a plan yet?”
Janah, “I’m stuck. Still waiting to see of the Society can come up with anything provable on the sexual behavior side. If they do, then they should just report it to authorities and we’re out. I don’t know anything about the Virginia State police, but I doubt they would ignore it. There’s still the cloud of the Virginia Tech thing.”
Nikko, “The police didn’t do anything wrong in that.”
Janah, “No, that’s not what I mean. It’s just the atmospherics. First Virginia Tech, then a school with a pedophile problem. Hardly good for the community. The cops would jump on it with any reasonable evidence.”
Nikko, “Might be more incentive to cover it up.”
Janah, “True. There’s no evidence of any investigation at all, I suppose the lack of could support either argument. If they have no knowledge of wrongdoing, there’s nothing to investigate. If they are scared of consequences, maybe. These things don’t just go away however. Anyone with any sense would see cover up as a rotten idea. Not only a bad school, a bad police department as well.”
“Authorities do stupid stuff all the time.”
“They’re in charge, they think they get a pass, often they do. Cops shoot unarmed people and walk all the time.”
“You going to call Mrs. E then?”
She does, there is nothing further. No videos of little boys and girls playing doctor, no high school antics in the gym, or behind the gym, or anyplace else obvious. She directs us to a Society link that has video of conversations between Society surveillance and students or faculty.
Mrs. Epstein, “I think you’ll find it interesting.”
Janah clicks to the site and starts the video. The first is a high school student giving directions to an older couple driving by the school. The boy is articulate and polite. The older couple are ma’am and sir. The directions accurate to a fault, such a fault that it grabs Janah’s attention.
“Interesting is right.”
We move on to the second video.
Cheerleaders practicing in shorts and sweatshirts, the moves so syncopated they’re robotic. They are in perfect precision, except one girl who misses a kick. An adult comes over, obviously the cheer coach. She says something, the video didn’t pick up the conversation, but the listening device did. She said one word, ‘discipline.’
The girl who made the error has no look of fear, embarrassment or any other emotion. She walks over to the male cheerleaders, who pick her up and toss her straight up in the common throw that should result in the girl doing a back flip then being caught in a net of the boys’ interlocked arms. She goes up, executes a perfect flip, lays straight with her arms folded across her chest and comes down. The boys are in a line facing each other. Instead of catching her, they watch her smack to the ground. The only thing that saves the girl is that they practice these moves on large gym mats. The girl lays stunned for a full minute. Nobody moves to help. She begins to stir, struggles to her feet, staggers, steps, falls, gets up trembling, then appears to regain her breath and composure. Practice continues as if nothing happened. None of the others changes expression, start to finish.
“Do tell. An entire cheer squad of Nikkos.”
Janah laughs, “The Blacksburg Samurais.”
Nikko, “Can’t be samurai. The girl would have taken heads.”
The next video is marching band practice. Again, so perfect it seems edited. Drills are military sharp, the same flat expression on every band member, the music played flawlessly, at least as much as I could tell listening though a video recording. High school kids don’t have rehearsals like that. Even more telling is the end of band practice. The kids pack up, walk off with no conversation, no plans for the evening, no complaining about upcoming tests. They march two by two to a brick building that appears to be a dorm.
Janah, “I’ve seen enough. We need to go to Blacksburg. What we do when we get there I’m still working out.”
“Maybe it’s something in the water, subliminal tapes played at night, overdose of Facebook.”
Janah, “I don’t know what it is, although the Facebook idea has merit, too much of that will make anyone a robot. We’re going to find out.”
Janah calls Mrs. Epstein, “Any suggestions for how we get in the school?”
Mrs. Epstein, “Next week is a tour for prospective students and their parents.”
Janah, “I’ll call Transportation. We need continued monitoring, listening devices pointed at the classrooms and dorms.”
They hang up, Janah says, “I need to talk to Chan and Ning, Daph, please arrange it while I call Transportation.”
Two hours later Chan and Ning are at our table, Janah is explaining her idea.
“I would like to go to this school on the pretext of enrolling David Li. The problem is, I don’t know if something chemical is involved. David knows what to look for and how it might be introduced.”
Amaya, “David Li is already expressionless.”
Janah, “Another reason to use him. He fits the profile on the surface. He’s well mannered, not childish. Amaya could do it, but she has no experience with drugs or mental contrivances. I’m going to include her, but as a tourist. She’s good at reading expression. Perhaps she can see something we can’t see on tape, some scintilla of humanity under the surface.”
Chan, “Good idea. David Li says she is remarkable at reading emotion. He says she can sometimes tell him what he is thinking.”
Ning, “One day, out of the blue, she said, ‘You should go to your parents for your brother’s anniversary. They will want to see the children.’ I had no idea why she knew I was thinking it over. Chinese turn these things into all day events, and into the night, frequently the next day. I do not want to spend my life at a party. I have things to do.”
Nikko, “Did it get sorted out?”
Ning, “Yes, We went at midday, brought presents, the children greeted everyone, we had food and refreshments, then Chan said he and David had temple responsibilities, which is true.. My family's respect for the Shaolin overrode their demands for unlimited time. We stayed three hours and left.”
“See, Shaolin training has innumerable uses. Escaping extended family occasions not the least of them.”
Ning, “I plan to drag it out as needed. Chan is happy to oblige them, but it gets ridiculous with so many relatives. This family doesn’t do birthdays, which is a relief.”
“I always thought my birthday should be a national holiday.”
Nikko, “You think every day is a holiday.”
“And every meal a banquet.”
Janah, “So, do we take David Li or do you prefer we not?”
Chan, “I will go with you. He will report what he sees, which may help.”
“There must be a part of the tour where students meet students. I’m comfortable with David Li doing that on his own. I have another idea for Amaya. Daphne and Nikko will be around, no one but us will know it. Ning, what do you think?”
“His father will be at arm’s length. Something is dreadfully wrong at this place full of mechanical children. You must help.”
Janah, “Then it’s settled. Please be ready to leave Friday. The introductory talk is on Sunday, then student interviews on Monday, and a tour of the campus Monday afternoon. By Tuesday, we ought to have a feel for the place.”
“I need a layout of the campus, the buildings, the floor plans, entrances and exits, height of the buildings, lighting and security.”
Janah, “Call Mrs. E, and tell her it’s priority. I’d be surprised if they hadn’t already collected much of the information .”
Nikko, “We also need backgrounds on all faculty and administration. Particularly when they joined the school and when this behavior began to appear.”
Janah, “Good. Okay let’s get at it. I’ll review the background data when it arrives, you guys the layout. Let Transportation know what gear you need.”
I Google the school and get a panorama of the buildings and campus, even interior shots. Whatever is being hidden is hiding in plain sight. They make a big show of their new heating and cooling facility, with shots of the energy efficient boilers and cooling towers. Even a solar array for the upper class dorm and the sparkling new gym.
On Friday, we’re in a bus, a very fancy bus, with satellite phones, internet and flat screen television, a stocked refrigerator, cushy bunks, and two bathrooms. The trip is only five hundred miles, all interstate. But there is Chan, David Li, Amaya, and the three of us, plus luggage and gear for climbing walls, being invisible, and the usual assortment of weapons. Better to have a place to operate out of than keep it in an SUV or haul it to a hotel room. We have four rooms at the Inn at Virginia Tech, one for the driver and two for us. Operations could be conducted from the bus, particularly if we need to ask people questions in a private setting. The driver is a Society contractor. He doesn’t ask jack.
I sit upfront with him to learn the operational skills for the bus. I like to know, like the houseboat that hauls us to the cabin in Canada. I may never be on another houseboat, but if I am, I’ll know how it works.
With all the distractions, DVDs, internet, talking about the schools and the temple and Amaya making up songs, we are there in what seems like an instant. We pull in the hotel lot, our driver has room keys, no check in. I get the driver’s cell, tell him to assume we’d need the bus available on a moment’s notice.
The rooms are nice enough, standard upscale business décor. We have an SUV to get around Blacksburg, take a ride and familiarize ourselves with the town. Then we drive past Anderson Prep. It’s surrounded by an eight foot brick wall, and the gate is a brick archway, with a thick metal gate and a guardhouse. Schools these days have the architectural appeal of state prisons. Janah drops me off at the left front corner, Nikko the right. We walk the perimeter and meet in the middle, I backtrack with Nikko to the street and we climb in the car.
Janah, “The campus is about twenty acres, walled. So less than half a mile wide, half a mile deep. I noticed you passed an exit on each side wall, none in back.”
“The exits are truck sized with the same heavy metal gates as the front entrance. They aren’t used much, grass has grown up at the bottom, no recent tire marks. It’s a gravel road to the side gates. The place is pretty well lit, particularly near the buildings, not so much in the rear. There are spots that light up corners and exits.”
Janah, “More for fire trucks, or some other emergency. When you looked in, I could see there were no major structures near the right side exit. The left has a building nearby. The plans show a warehouse for extra furniture, athletic gear, miscellaneous stuff.”
Nikko, “One more thing. I climbed a tree a dozen yards from the wall, there are no trees near the walls, inside or outside. The top of the wall is razor wired, all the way round.”
Amaya, “Does that not make the parents think it is a prison?”
“I’m sure the school tells them it’s for safety. It’s more likely to keep the kids in, but the sales pitch is that it keeps school shooters out.”
“Ah, of course. After Virginia Tech, they probably had parents wanting more security.”
Janah, “School shootings give institutions an excuse to create more restrictions under the guise of protection. Security is restriction, not freedom. The more of one, the less of the other. Still, parents are right to be concerned, too many guns in unknown hands. Let’s get back and have dinner. Early tomorrow we start on strategy.”
We eat at the hotel, restaurant is called Preston’s, the food is quite good. Between filets, scallops, breaded eggplant with risotto and braised mushrooms, we are fully restored.
Chan and David take an evening walk around campus, Nikko and Janah head to their room, Amaya and I digest over a movie, then undress and refresh. Amaya snuggles next to me, I do my four kisses and add a few more.
She whispers, “I’m counting kisses, you have to match the high number.”
“Maybe we’ll work it up to a hundred.”
“I can take it,” I pull her in closer, and we fall away to sleep.
The next morning, I wake completely refreshed. Amaya still in her spot, we hadn’t moved all night.
Janah, You slept profoundly. I woke up in the middle of the night and you were mentally gone. She has a very relaxing effect on you.
I love holding her, a flawless diamond. She’s stirring, we’ll be out in a bit, can you manage?
Janah, I suppose I can make my own tea.
Can you call room service? We have planning to get after.
Amaya is looking up at me, she kisses me and hops up to the bathroom. I follow soon after and do the morning ritual, Amaya runs the shower.
“Shower with me, you have to wash my hair,” she looks me over, “does everyone shave….um…there?”
“We’re all bald as cue balls. Except for my head, I don’t like body hair. Nikko keeps a short landing strip, but nothing else.”
She looks at herself, “Mine isn’t much of anything.”
“No, you’re blond everyplace, Janah never had any, doesn’t have to shave her legs, nothing. Nikko and I had laser hair removal treatments on our legs. It is so much better than a razor every other day. You won’t have a leg hair problem, blondie, not much of a pubic one. I can Brazil you if you wish.”
Amaya, “I must remain perfect in every way, if it grows, then I would like it gone.”
We dry, then dry each other’s hair, then dress and emerge stunningly elegant, as befits royalty, go to Janah’s room.
“Our Royal Highnesses are disposed to have light fare prior to engaging our public.”
Janah, “And you can dispose yourselves over to the counter and fetch it.”
I turn to Amaya, “Take a seat my angel, I fetch, you relax and look fetching.”
She does, and I do, Nikko mentals, I’m going to have to reinstall her work ethic after you’re done pampering her.
Don’t be silly, she has your work ethic and then some. You put it there, it isn’t erasable. If it was, she wouldn’t erase it, she loves her many jobs.
Amaya, “You need not discuss me silently.”
Nikko, “Eat your breakfast, you see too much. You have a role in this, pay close attention.”
Amaya grins at me slyly, “As you wish, Nishiko.”
Chan and David appear and the mega breakfast is no more, I dispatch the trays and we settle around the table to plot an approach.
Janah rolls out satellite shots of the school and the plans of each building. The school doesn’t have a huge body count, under three hundred. It has more buildings than it needs. Three had been constructed in the last two years.
Janah, “Interesting that a school with more than enough space, builds more space. One building is a new gym. State of the art, bunch of weight machines, treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes. The other two buildings aren’t recorded as anything, but there is activity, students in and out. Last week, I asked Surveillance to track those specifically. The file came in late last night.”
Chan, “Is there a routine? When students go in, when they come out? Is it all students, or certain grades? What faculty or administration personnel work there?”
Janah, “No faculty was recorded, the activity is strange. Girls in one building, boys in another, by age group. What happens once they are inside is anybody’s guess.”
Nikko, “Other adults?”
Janah, “A couple goes in an hour or so prior to the students. We haven’t identified them.”
“They come in cars? Do they live there?”
Janah, “They live on campus and don’t leave, or don’t leave very often. There’s no vehicle to track back to them, the school has vans and a couple of cars, perhaps they have access to those. Doesn’t appear to be much if any contact between them and the administration or faculty.”
Amaya, “The students must know who they are.”
Janah, “Sure. So far, the students have been unapproachable, and the things we hear them say are so vanilla as to be meaningless.”
Chan, “The Society didn’t set up listening devices?”
Janah, “The two new buildings are impervious to external listening devices, even heat sensors. We don’t even know what the interior looks like.”
“You mean the plans are filed no place?”
“That’s it. They built two three thousand square foot buildings without filing anything with the city or state.”
Nikko, “They have connections. There is no way to get plumbing, electrical work, sewage, or construction without anyone knowing. Plans had to be filed, they got obliterated along the way.”
Janah, “Must be it. Surveillance talked to Blacksburg residents. Several recalled the construction, trucks going in and out, they assumed the school was expanding. It was welcome news in the aftermath of Virginia Tech. Nobody asked a lot of questions.”
Nikko, “We know what we don’t know, what do we know?”
“We know there is a school full of Stepford kids and a faculty only slightly less placid. We have a tenuous possibility of sexual activity, one child who may be fantasizing doesn’t mean much.”
Amaya, “Why do the parents not notice anything. I can see the townspeople, the kids stay on campus almost all the time. How can the parents not see their kid acting differently?”
Janah, “Only a guess, but the kids aren’t always robotic, they are unusually polite and mannered. Perhaps the school gets credit for that in parent eyes. There are tight restrictions on visiting days, parents can’t bounce in anytime they feel like it. The cheerleading incident is weird though, suggestive of a rigid, even ritualistic, code of conduct. Maybe we underestimate the level of control. Perhaps whoever controls can dial the effects up or down. Obviously they got the kids to this point, it’s not a great leap to think they can adjust it. We don’t know if it’s a drug or some kind of external stimulus that alters brain activity. It’s an interesting concept. I use more blunt methods, but I can combo drugs to create a variety of reactions in targets, get them fearful or hyper, then dial them down to just anxious all the way to cooperative and compliant. And my stuff isn’t very sophisticated.”
David Li, “What about the teachers?”
“Mrs. Epstein said they weren’t involved, not so the Society can tell. I can’t go with that. Too many complications, teachers have lives outside the school. I think they are under a similar influence. Since we don’t know how this works, we’re only speculating on how broad it’s spread.”
Chan, “What’s next?”
“Tomorrow, you and I visit the school, take the tour. David Li is the prospective student, Amaya is my daughter along for the ride, not a prospective student.”
Janah turns to Amaya, “You have critical role. I need you to get attention. A few students are sure to be around. Try and freak them out. If an administrator is along, I don’t care if he or she gets freaked as well. I suggest you cop attitude. When we get there, just be a little sullen, like this tour is cramping your day. Then get testier, or snippier, or more sarcastic depending on what the reactions are.”
Nikko, “Why is she doing this?”
“I want to be seen as an indulgent parent, see what it evokes in the administration. Are they as cool as they seem to be? Or is something boiling under the surface? Amaya creates emotional reactions, joy, sorrow, sympathy, fear, that’s what a performance artist does. If anyone can crack the veneer in a short visit, it’s her.”
Amaya, “Yeowee, this is going to be fun. I am all over it. Daphne, I need makeup, Goth-like, not overkill. I’ve got my bracelets and rings, I’ll pull out the edgier stuff. A sweater that hangs to my thighs, black leggings, your waist chain, a tattoo on my neck, black fingernails, boots. Let’s see, purple hair. We have all that?”
“And more. Janah can’t go into the school like Janah, David Li’s appearance will be altered, even Chan has glasses. He’s harder to change, it’s not like he can wear a hat all day. His passport says he and David are from China, Chan won’t speak English. David or Janah will interpret. ”
Amaya, “Can I pick out stuff now? I need to get into character, and I want to write out lines, practice being a snippy, spoiled bundle of bad attitude.”
“Got a name for yourself, you can’t be Amaya.”
“Echo. It’s a Goth name, not that popular. Echo was a nymph and one legend says that Zeus used her to distract Hera during his adulterous affairs. In one version, Hera fixed it so Echo could only repeat the last words of other people. In another, Echo was rejected by Narcissus, who could only love himself, she shriveled up until only her voice was left.”
I giggle, Amaya is already adopting her role.
Chan, “Girl is complicated.”
Chan stares at her, unfazed.
Amaya, “Guess it has more effect on some than others.”
Amaya laughs at me imitating her, “This could go on forever. I can’t use it all the time anyway, I may need more flexibility to be really obnoxious….okay, nobody say obnoxious.”
Naturally we all say ‘obnoxious.’ But it’s the end of Echo for the day. We have planning to do.
Amaya goes off to become weird and sarcastic. She’s hunched over her notebook on the balcony, lost to the world when she prepares a role. Nikko and I gather up the plans and satellite images and begin to think over what we want to see, and how to see it without getting busted.
Chan, Janah and David Li start adopting their roles, who would say what, developing David’s story about his interests. David is a scholar, he can pick out a subject and be fluent for purposes of interviews. He chooses languages, which is a fit for Janah as well.
Janah is a friend of the family, serving as guide and interpreter. David Li, who will be Shen Li, had attended a boarding school in San Francisco and wants to broaden his familiarity of the United States. His story is that there are too many Asians in California already.
Chan is a wealthy Chinese industrialist, he owns textile mills, a staunch supporter of American capitalism, and an advocate for its benefits back home.
By the end of the day, everyone has their role internalized. It can’t be too rehearsed, she doesn’t go for specifics, rather generalities, keep the stories consistent. The only specifics are date of birth, city of birth, parents names, things anyone would know about themselves. We have transcripts and references if they ask, all valid and will stand any scrutiny by the school. Janah doesn’t plan on it getting that far.
Nikko and I pour over satellite images and building plans. Fine as far as it goes, but the plans for the two new buildings don’t exist. Somebody doesn’t want anyone outside the school to know either the layout or what goes on in there.
Janah, “Any ideas?”
“There’s nothing on record for the buildings we’re interested in. The satellite images are clear enough, and the close ups are good. A single entrance door, and a wide roll up door at the rear of both. The exteriors have cosmetic differences, but the square footage and shapes are identical. We know girls go into one and boys into another. Time they are inside varies, from an hour to most of the night. The buildings are in use during the evenings only. There are external windows, high off the ground, barred and coated, can’t see in from outside. The roof is flat, no skylights, small vents pop up on the roof, nothing big enough to enter. Air conditioning units are on the roof, surrounded with chain link. Ductwork is inside the building, we can’t crawl through ducts we can’t access.”
Janah, “So the condensing unit is external, the blower is inside.”
“Yep. If we want in, it’s going to have to be a break in, and given the other security and secrecy, it’s going to set off alarms internally. They won’t want cops or a security company to appear if strange things are happening in the mystery buildings.”
Nikko, “Can we cut off the backup, then the main power supply?”
“That would kick in alarms as well,”
“Okay, can we cut the power to the entire school? It might be read as a general power outage, there will be confusion, we break in and photograph whatever we can and split?”
Janah, “Do we cut the generator power first, or do we let the generators kick in? Maybe that will reassure the administration and security that everything is okay at the buildings we’re interested in, Chan?”
“Suppose a car, delivery truck, pulls up just before the power outage. Lights go out, the truck hits the gate. Not an obvious attempt to break in, just an accident due to the sudden outage.”
Janah, “You mean create a separate distraction from the distraction of the lights going out?”
Janah, “What do you think?”
“Need a truck driver, Chan has to be with us, Nikko and I aren’t going to blow up the door, and we can’t kick it in. We don’t even know if Chan can open it.”
Chan, “Likely to be metal, high grade locks, door opens to the inside, not even a hinge on the outside. What about a window?”
“The windows are ten feet off the ground. But the bars are outside. If we can get something attached to the bars, Chan has a shot at yanking the thing off the window. We force the window, Nikko and I go in through that.”
Janah, “You have to be quick. The window is too high to bust with a brick, it might even be reinforced. Plus, you have to get up there.”
“If the window is open, getting up is a small problem, we hook a grappling iron and up we go.”
Janah, “How you going to break the window?”
“Sounds dicey. Lots of things have to go right, and in a short period of time. What’s plan B?”
“I have one, a completely different approach.”
I explain, “We kidnap the two who have access to the building. Then Janah finds out what we need to know directly. Once we know, we don’t need to get in the building. It’s not like we’re rescuing a trapped kid.”
Janah, “Better. How do we get them off the reservation?”
“Haven’t gotten that far yet. Unless the Society can figure out who they are, you can try to pick up something from your visit on campus. Anything we find out is more than we know now.”
Janah, “We have photos of them entering and leaving the building. They aren’t listed in school records as faculty, all the personnel have been accounted for. The thing we haven’t done is to try and match up their photos with any database. If they are credentialed, they are also likely to be photographed.”
Nikko, “Everyone has photo ID. Passports, driver’s licenses, surely there’s a picture in a file.”
“She’s right. Can we get the Society busy on matching the photos against obvious databases, Virginia driver’s licenses, passports, if necessary, military, intelligence, other government databases.”
Janah, “The only photos the Society has aren’t good enough for ID. They tend to wear sunglasses, the man wears a hat. We’ll have to get clear pictures when we grab them, then the Society can dig out who they are. It would be nice to know something about them in advance of my interview, but get them snatched, I’ll find out what they know anyway.”
“Good. Now, how do we snatch them?”
Chan, “Same strategy, create the confusion, but we take the targets, not the building.”
Nikko, “Let’s make them think the building is the target.”
Janah, “Very good. Cut the power, crash the truck, then a third distraction, something at the buildings. Grab the targets and get them off site and to the bus. Everything I need is there.”
“Okay. Tomorrow your visit, then if we have new information either from that or the Society, good. Unless something new comes in, I think I know how to get them, when, and how to get out. I presume we want them both.”
Janah, “Preferable, not entirely necessary. They don’t always go in and come out together. The woman goes to the girls’ building, the man to the boys’. That’s a problem. The helpful part is if they both disappear we can send the school a fake message saying they took off for security purposes and will be in touch. It will, at the least, keep the administration guessing for the time we need.”
“What’s the school schedule this week? Tomorrow is visiting day. Does the school return to normal on Tuesday?”
Janah, “Only the one day is on the program. We’ve hacked their internal communications, there has been no announcement that Tuesday is any different than any other day. In fact, aside from the students showing guests around, tomorrow is a school day. I guess the idea is to show prospective parents what the place is like during a normal day.”
“Okay, Nikko and I will figure out how to snatch the targets by the time you return from the tour tomorrow.”
Janah, “Then Chan and I are going to meditate. Amaya has that focused look, she’ll be busy until bedtime. Be sure she eats, when she gets like this she’s as bad as Kara starting a painting.”
Nikko, “Night Rain will be fed and in bed by ten or eleven.”
Amaya, “But what if I am still working?”
Nikko, “Fed and in bed.”
Amaya, “Hai, Mother Nishiko.”
I can see her face, I catch her grin. This is her element, she’s in the zone.