Chapter Twenty Nine III
You can see a lot just by looking.
A doubly massaged Janah is liquid as clear spring water. She’s bubbling in the tub while Nikko washes her hair. We while away the entire afternoon with pedicures and manicures, satellite radio on fusion jazz, not loud, just there. While nails dry, Janah changes it to world beat electronica and moves to the rhythmic music. As the sun goes down on our frozen city, she is adding to global warming, my own temperature elevated at the sight of gently swaying hips.
Nikko, “Master J could levitate a sumo wrestler. When she dances with the Jamaicans we should pass the hat, donate to the Shaolin, create orphanages for homeless ninjas.”
“She gets going and loses herself. This will go on for a while, fortunately, I have a plan. Turn down the lights a bit, then come snuggle with me on the couch, we’ll keep a sharp eye on Master J and make sure she isn’t abducted by horny aliens.”
I have Nikko enveloped on the couch, Janah in the bliss, her eyes closed, she is the music, it is her.
A half hour passes, she blinks looks over to the couch. Nikko had gotten nicely frenzied and has been ravishing me for the last five minutes.
Janah feels me in her head, Watching you and holding her was making me hydrate. Apparently she had some similar thought and started scrambling my brains….ohhhh, hold that thought, I’ll be back in a minute.
I gasp sharply, then a long series of gasps and the most exquisite groan of pleasure, hold her head against me until the tsunami passes.
Nikko’s face pops up, “Mistress is always most responsive.”
Janah giggles, “Oh yeah, Mistress is very fond of certain attentions. Good thing, she was going to get them from me regardless. De Seelk is delectable.”
Nikko, “Perfect description, okay, Master J next? I’m on a roll.”
“Master J in a little while, right now, Nikko.”
I attend to one leg and Janah the other, we ease our way up, then insatiable as ever, Janah takes over while I kiss and lick Nikko’s lips, neck, and any other free body parts I find. Nikko keeps up a soft stream of Japanese so erotic it could have fried tofu until she succumbs to Janah’s ministrations. She pulls Janah to her and whispers the nastiest things, resulting in Janah laying back lengthwise on the couch, head in my lap. While I enjoy teasing soft silky breasts, Nikko enjoys Janah’s soft silky elsewhere. Intermittent squeals, I feel her brain vaporize. I envision steam coming out her ears.
Now that everyone has been manicured, pedicured and multi-gasmed, I stir fry vegetables and brown rice, a hint of soy sauce, sesame and ginger fill the apartment. Janah is working on a bowl of vegetarian hot and sour soup, we demolish the vegetables and rice. I make us hot fudge sundaes, piled with nuts and whipped cream. Only one sensible thing to do, waddle off to bed.
It’s early when Kim calls, he has the package, “You going to get young girl?”
Janah, “The information is razor thin, I’m hoping for something in the laptop or cell phone. Nikko’s going out, Daphne will come for the stuff, you at the dojang?”
Kim, “I’ll be there in a few minutes..”
Nikko and I walk to the moms’ condo, then I continue to the dojang. By the time Nikko returns, Janah is going through the laptop, I’m searching the cell. There is no other organizer, no handheld, no paper. If she had phone numbers for anyone, they are in the laptop or on the phone.
Janah, “She must’ve kept the laptop at her place.”
“You mean this guy would never have left it?”
“Doesn’t seem smart, she could have anything stored in there. Some girls won’t walk out the door without theirs, others are freaked they’ll get lost or stolen, leave them at home and do their studying there. Based on what we know, Beth is the quiet type, not many real friends, none we know of at college, maybe she’s timid as well. Anyway, it’s lucky we got it and not him. There’s a contacts list and a bunch of names and numbers. Rule out the females? No, maybe there’s a girl in this someplace.”
“The cell’s been cleared, it doesn’t matter, Mo included the phone bills for the last three months. Let’s match them up against the laptop contacts. I presume we’re going to North Carolina.”
“After we talk to the Epsteins. Saddle up ladies, we need to go see what they can dig up.”
An hour later we are having tea, coffee and cinnamon rolls at Mrs. E’s kitchen table.
Janah, “We’ve got so little to go on, I’m running on air. I have a list of her contacts and phone numbers, some addresses. There are phone bills to show who she called the last months before she disappeared.”
Mrs. Epstein, “Now you need to know who these people are, how much contact they had with the girl, and does anyone know the guy with the cross for an earring?”
Mrs. Epstein, “We’re putting our people on it today. They’re going to make pretext calls to all the people in her universe, skipping mom and the obvious, the pizza delivery place, the bookstore. Our people will call with every subterfuge known to man, old high school chum, ex-boyfriend, sister, brother, a lawyer looking up inheritors, Uncle Timmy, bank credit approval, employment reference. From there they’ll try for names of other friends, where she might be reached. People will be very helpful if we don’t intimidate them, we make it all positive and squishy.”
Janah, “We need to know who this guy is and if he’s the boyfriend. If he is, what’s his name, was he a student, where’d he work? He’s the sole lead, except for an unknown female who supposedly helped Beth get into the program. I don’t know if she exists, or Beth just thinks she does. Sorry to be so vague, but…”
Mrs. E, “Don’t be silly, it’s what we do in the Society. Many of our leads start with limited evidence. Before you guys go to work, there’s miles of footwork to establish that we have a real case, a bad guy. We don’t send you to refocus based on hearsay or guesswork. Our people will have this narrowed down in a few days, maybe a week if the guy has been really good about being invisible. Nobody can simply disappear, particularly if there are three or more people involved. It’s just not possible. People need things, groceries, gas, utilities, they have weaknesses, they want a drink, gamble, check with family. They go out, are seen. Sooner or later they surface. You’ll find your guy or we’ll find your guy, but he’s going to get found.”
Janah, “Then we’re going to plan on hitting Chapel Hill in a couple of days. We’ll do some of our own snooping unless we have harder leads by then. This is not good. A girl shows up on a video, says she’s fine, even tells us who she’s with. Why would they do that?”
“You mean since they already had the girl. If she’s part of some scheme to abduct girls for whatever, prostitution, sold as sex slaves, anything illegal, why inform anyone with a clue as to who you are?”
“Exactly, Daph. What’s the point?”
“Nothing Googles in my head, Nikko?”
Nikko, “It’s strange, do they want to shove it in someone’s face? Using the girls for illicit reasons flies in the face of the recording, of letting her mother know what she’s doing. Perhaps a distraction, a delaying tactic.”
Janah, “Yes, could be good or bad. If she’s dead, they buy time, if she’s alive it buys the same thing. We need to rethink this, not take it at face value. We aren’t going anywhere tomorrow. I want to see the video they sent to her mother. I was dumb, I should have asked for it in the first place. If Mo can get the DVD to us by tomorrow morning, maybe we can still leave tomorrow afternoon. Daphne, call Kim and tell him we need the video, we need it as soon as possible, the original DVD, not a copy. If they want a copy, make one and send us the original. And ask him to bring it to the Epstein’s, I’d like him to see it as well. Dummy me.”
“There must be some platitude I can use here, ‘nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t apply, it fails to take me into account. How about, “All for one, dumb for all? The three muske-stooges.”
Janah, “Don’t you have calls to make?”
An hour later, we’re back at the apartment, nothing to do but wait unit the DVD shows up.
Kim calls two hours later, “I’m bringing the parcel.”
“Geez, how’d they get it from there to here in two hours?”
Kim, “Ancient Korean saying, helicopter flies in straight line,” he clicks off.
I call James, he and Kim show up within two minutes of each other. We two cab it back to the Epsteins’. The group watches the DVD silently three times, Janah asks for it to be played in slow motion. She stops it several times, reverses it, goes through several parts almost second by second.
Janah, “Well, well, well. This changes things. Anyone?”
James, “If I saw what you saw, she’s not lying. She appears committed to this group, I listened and looked until my eyes hurt, Dr. E?”
Dr. Epstein, “I have nothing to add.”
Kim, “I haven’t seen anything esteemed doctors didn’t see, still something’s not right. Play it again.”
“Girls, Mrs. E.?”
“I already know what you’re thinking, Nikko?”
“Play it again.”
Mrs. E, “Obviously some of you have seen something.”
Five showings later, the group sits in silence for a minute, each one deep in thought. The video is only five minutes long, an hour has passed since the first viewing.
Janah, “Fast forward to about the middle, the part where she’s saying she knows what she wants and it’s to be with the children of the prophet.”
I find the spot, back it up a few seconds, play it.
“There, right there. Back up three seconds, play it second by second.”
There’s a spot, a millisecond, where the girl’s position alters, just a fraction.
James, “I see it. Beth’s position just before and after don’t match up, she’s shifted to the left slightly. It was edited, or stopped and restarted, they tried to make it appear continuous. Something happened they didn’t want recorded.”
“Yes, it’s obvious now. I saw the change, at first it didn’t register as anything but a jiggle of the camera. You’re right, her change of position is minor, but it’s not right, not continuous. Why?”
Janah, “Dad said it. They saw something they didn’t want and edited it out, did a good job of it too. You could play this thing a thousand times and not pick it up, I wouldn’t have, until I decided to watch it through Daphne’s eyes.”
“Why did I miss it?”
“You didn’t, you saw it like dad did. I was looking for incongruities in body language. Her voice inflection changed as well, so minutely as to easily be just natural voice modulation. It’s the two together that don’t add up.”
Kim, “We cannot know what happened. I felt something more than just the one spot on the video.”
“Tell us, please.”
“When a student has rehearsed Korean terms over and over, until they can parrot the phrases, they can repeat the phrases perfectly, technically. Even so, it’s not natural. We are at a disadvantage, we don’t know this girl, we have no other experience of her talking, seeing her normal body language. I believe her speech was rehearsed, many times. Although she knew the words, they weren’t natural to her. She’s only repeating what she was coached to repeat.”
James, “Of course! Stupid, I’ve only seen it a thousand and one times, I’m an idiot.”
Dr. Epstein, “She’s hypnotized.”
Mrs. Epstein, “I wonder why her mother didn’t see it, she must have sensed it wasn’t her daughter’s normal voice, pace, inflection.”
“That, Mrs. E, is a good question.”
Dr. Epstein, “The simplest answer is that mom is too distraught to pay attention to those subtleties, perhaps she hears or sees it, thinks it’s her daughter under some sort of stress, or drugged. As Master Kim says, we’re at a different disadvantage, nobody here’s laid eyes on her, spoken to her.”
James, “Might she have something to hide in all this?”
Janah, “If she does, the Mayor is unaware of it. He was as forthright as I could have hoped in our meeting. One thing I am sure of, he believes the girl was abducted or coerced in some way. If anyone’s running a game on him, he’s been taken in. Has Mo seen Beth’s mother, heard her, talked to her? Would he have a feel for her sincerity, is there anything he can add about the girl? I guess he would have mentioned it to you.”
Kim, “Still, a good observation. If he was with the family, the girl’s mother, he would have been attuned to any funny business. His job is to protect the Mayor, not just from physical attack, that’s his main job. He has another role. People see Mo and think of bodyguard. That’s the idea, let them assume. Mo is also there to observe, to sniff out people. More than once he’s kept the Mayor from getting to be friendly with the wrong person.”
James, “Can we get Mo to tell us his impression? I mean if he was there during this, with the family, then we already have our answer, he has no suspicions about mom or he would have said something to you.”
Kim. “I’ll call him.”
Janah, ‘Before you do, let me think…..yes, ask him if there's anyone who is new to the family there, upstate. Anyone at all. It’s only a shot in the dark.”
Kim pulls out a cell phone, talks to Mo, hangs up, “Mom’s not hiding anything, he wanted to think about any new family acquaintances, nothing came to mind. He said he also wanted to ask the Mayor.”
“Good enough. It’s time to look around Chapel Hill. Unless another shoe drops, we’ve sucked all the information out of what we’ve got. Beth may be more agreeable to this than we think. That doesn’t explain our observations about the DVD. Was she just nervous, complicit in the so called abduction and nervous about making the tape? If she was hypnotized, which it appears, then her complicity comes back into question.”
Nikko, “I thought you couldn’t hypnotize people and make them do things they didn’t want to do.”
James, “Yes and no. It partly depends on the suggestibility of the individual. It also depends on what other drugs you’ve given them, or if they’ve been tortured or sleep deprived for instance. The short answer is, given the right mix, you can make anyone say or do anything.”
“This would be simpler if it was another wife beater. I go explain the rules, we take the victim.”
“This was something we were given incomplete, not like Society work. There’s not enough data, no history. I can’t see anything else to do. Let’s go to Chapel Hill and nose around.
Chapter Thirty III
I make a good girl bad and bad girls worse
Hinder, All American Nightmare
By the afternoon we’re in a standard rental headed out of Manhattan, down I-95 to I-85 towards Raleigh and Chapel Hill. We go to Homewood Suites in Fredericksburg Virginia, about seven plus hours.
Janah changed the check in routine. The key card for the room is in the rental car glove box. There is no check in for us. The fallacy of hotel security is that the person who rents the room is the person who stays in it. Once a key is issued, the hotel has no idea who is in the room. There are sometimes security cameras, useless against sunglasses, hats, nondescript clothes, wigs or fake hair color. The night is pleasantly uneventful, it’s late when we arrive, time to rest.
The next morning’s drive is a cakewalk, under 200 miles. By lunchtime we’ve started to survey the college town. The plan is simple, the Society turned up four phone numbers of females, one instructor and one other male. The pretext calls yielded that Beth was casual friends of two girls, two were classmates who had swapped course notes, otherwise had little contact with her. The guy hadn’t answered, the line disconnected. That didn’t dead end the Society, the customer’s name is T.K. Jefferson.
The first girl is easy, Natalie Huntington appears at her dorm around three thirty. Janah approaches her alone. She’d found out from a student coming out of the dorm what Natalie looked like, long dyed blond hair, chunky, jeans, Guess t-shirt and flip flops…a fashion disaster. Conversation light, Janah intentionally skips personal questions, doesn’t want her guard up.
She puts on the Idiot Girl smile, higher pitched singsong voice, “My church group was contacted by someone you know, Beth Freeman. She said she wanted to attend services, did once actually. In the course of getting acquainted, you know, what’s she studying, where she lives, family, she mentioned you.”
Natalie looks suspicious, “I’m not religious, didn’t know Beth was really, she never mentioned any church stuff.”
“I’m not looking for converts,” she reboots her big Janah smile, “we don’t like that kind of thing.”
“Beth just sort of left school apparently. Not that she owed us any explanation. I just liked her. She seemed sweet, kind of shy, a little wallflowerish maybe, I’m such a sucker for the shy type.”
Natalie’s guard lowers a bit, “That’s Beth, never could get her to do anything. She never said anything to me about leaving either. Just gone one day. I thought she might have gotten homesick and was embarrassed about it.”
“Yeah, me too. I called her mom. Mrs. Freeman told me Beth joined another religious group, I didn’t ask her anything else. I guess I should leave it there. The Lord guides us as He sees fit.”
Before Natalie can get around to asking questions about the church, Janah moves on, “She told me she was seeing a guy around here.”
At the mention of boys, Natalie warms to the conversation, “I almost never saw her talk to guys, she didn’t mention anything like that. I think shy kind of covers it. But, you know, I did see her, once, with someone. I walked over to say hi and when he saw me coming, he left, which I thought was a little strange.”
Janah sees her opening, “That is weird, I mean, you’re so cute and all. I’d have thought he would want to check you out. You know how guys are. Did she say anything about him?”
Natalie loosens up after Janah’s sucker punch, “I asked, she said he was a graduate student, helped her with math, then we started talking about class and stuff. She just dropped it. You know, it’s funny you should mention the religion thing.”
Janah, “Why’s that?”
Natalie, “He had an earring, a small cross. Most guys don’t wear that kind of thing here, it’s gotten kind of passé, maybe that’s why I noticed it. Anyway, she never mentioned him again.”
“Probably just a coincidence. I know some of the men in religious groups, from our interfaith meetings, did she tell you his name?”
“Yeah, let’s see, Tommy I think. Didn’t give me his last name, I didn’t ask.”“Graduate student in what? Did he work? I guess you really don’t know, it’s not important, I just wanted to check-in with her. We do NOT try to convert anyone. When someone comes to us, we like to show we’re interested in them.”
“Wish I could tell you more. Like I said, we had lunch sometimes, studied together in the library, I never saw where she lived or anything, she didn’t live in the dorm.”
“I guess it makes no sense to try to find the guy. If he was just tutoring, he probably doesn’t have a clue either.”
“I haven’t seen him around, hadn’t seen him before.”
“Well, I’ll tell the new member committee she’s just left school and leave it. I don’t want to be a pest. Thanks for taking time.”
Natalie fakes a smile and they part, Janah joins up with Nikko and me at a Starbucks filled with students chatting, tapping into laptops, ear buds hooked to IPods, IPhones, androids, anything but their own head, nursing five dollar cups of tangentially coffee oriented drinks.
“College must be fairly easy, I don’t recall having this much time in the temple.”
Janah, “Maybe they’re all smarter than us.”
“That must be it. When do they practice gung fu?”
“Must be at night, perhaps I’ll ask someone.”
Nikko, “Find out anything?”
“His name is Tommy, the name the Mayor gave us. It’s got to be the T.K. Jefferson on her laptop,” she replays the story for Nikko.
“Think she bought it?”
“Doesn’t matter. She’s not the curious type. Nice enough, once I explained I wasn’t there to covert her to whatever. If they were acquaintances, they were casual ones, just freshmen ships in the night. We don’t have to worry about her spreading the story, she has other priorities.”
Nikko, “How do you know?”
“She’s put on her freshmen fifteen. In her case she’s taken most of someone else’s fifteen as well. Natalie’s been so busy partying, I was lucky she remembered Beth at all. Thankfully, she’s absorbed by boys, so she remembered Tommy, not to mention the semester’s almost shot. This town empties out over the summer I’m sure.”
We hang around for a bit, trying to figure out the best way to locate girl number two, or did it make sense to see if the Society could get their arms around Jefferson and not have the risk of raising too much interest in Beth Freeman. It’s a small community, only fifteen thousand students, if thirty percent are freshman, it isn’t that big a universe. Where does the mystery girl fit in, the one who supposedly introduced Beth to the children of the prophet. Janah thinks it likely she isn’t a student, or even local, too risky. If she is, it’s also risky for us to become too visible and scare off the targets. Could have been Natalie, but we had to start somewhere. After Janah talked to her, Natalie is out of the equation.
“Let’s go to the room and call Mrs. E. See if Tommy, or T.K. or Kenneth Jefferson leads anywhere.”
Janah hangs up with Mrs. Epstein, “The Society is all over it. They should have looked for Osama, wouldn't have taken them ten years.”
Nikko, “I didn’t, what’d she say?”
“Jefferson worked as a late shift security guard at a medical complex, went by Kenny on the job. Means he had his days free to search around for girls who met his profile. He’d look for loners, shy, new to the area, perhaps a little intimidated by the whole college thing. The records show an address on the other side of town, not that it’s that far from the university side of town. The sides of this town are pretty close together. Call to the number, the same number as in Beth’s laptop, gets nothing, it’s not in service. He bought a buy and fly prepaid, but he paid for minutes on a credit card. That connects the calls to him. If he’d paid for the minutes in cash, we’d be up the creek. His credit card address is a P.O. Box in Chicago. That means he’d be stupid to be in Chicago. The landlord says Jefferson moved out a few weeks ago, he’s trying to rent the place. No luck yet, it’s not near campus and the school year is ending. I got the location, we’re going apartment hunting.”
The landlord is anxious for us to come over. With the semester ending, new tenants are scarce. We walk through the apartment, which takes a minute, it’s furnished, barely.
There’s a slight scent of marijuana in here.
Janah, Get the landlord out of here, I need to dig around a little.
“Mr. Adams, is there another place available in the building?”
“All rented ‘cept for this un. You needen’ 'nother place too? May get a move out, I could let you know.”
I flash my charm smile, “How sweet. Is there a laundry room?”
“Yep. Down the basement.”
I take his arm, “Show me, please.”
Adams and I leave to inspect washing machines, they start turning over couch cushions, look behind the refrigerator, dig around in the closets and drawers in the bedroom and bath. Nothing, almost too clean. In the basement, I lean against a machine and chat up Adams, after ten minutes of filling the air about his life, he says he had to finish a paint job. Just as Janah gets my we’re coming up, she spots a scribbled number on the wall, next to an empty phone outlet. It had been written in pencil and smudged, barely discernible.
Janah, “How’s the laundry?”
“Adequate for our purposes.”
“Go to the wall with the phone outlet, maybe you can read the number smudged there, I can’t.”
While I wander around, Janah asks, “Mr. Adams, I have to say, either you cleaned up real good or whoever lived here was a great tenant, there’s hardly a scuff on the floor.”
“He was fine, hardly around so’s you’d notice. Worked most nights, left outta here before lunch, not here a whole lot. He didn’t talk much, girl over occasionally. I don’t stick my nose in tenants’ business.”
He looks around like he’s checking for secret agents, “Tween us, I could get a little scent of then funny cigarettes kids use, you know what I mean? There’s never no problem, it’s a college town, cops talk a big show, they don’t spend a lot of time hassling the kids, just pretend they don’t notice. I got no complaint he wants to have his toot, workin’ all night like that. I like mine liquid, beer man. I stay out of other people’s business, just like I stay out of yours if you live here.”
Janah, “Well, that makes it even more attractive. Well, we have to get going, if we decide to take it, I’ll call you.”
She surveys the place one more time, “Nice enough apartment, I wonder why he moved?”
“Said he’d gotten a job across the state, more money. Said he liked moving around. That’s all I know. He didn’t say where across state, I don’t pry, like I said.”
“Man of your word, anyone can see that Mr. Adams. It’s been a pleasure.”
Janah thought about calling the number, the smudged number from the apartment. I’d been able to decipher all of it except whether the fourth digit was a five or a six. Doesn’t matter, I’m sure it’s one or the other. She calls her Society contact instead. We have nothing else to do for the time being, go to the hotel. They’ve put us at The Siena.
Janah, “I want an industrial size pizza and something chocolate.”
“Goody. I’ll fetch, Nikko stays with you. Any other requests?”
Janah has that look, I need to get in the shower, so does Nikko. Take your time, then add a bit.
I manage to take an hour plus to go to the grocery and find a suitable pizza place, Alfredo’s. I didn’t mind killing the time. I could feel Janah occupying herself with Nikko. I’d begun to understand Nikko’s Japanese as she spoke quietly to Janah; positively shocking, the things she demanded Janah do. And she so willing to do them.
The sex awakened other appetites, we went through a large margherita pizza with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil, and a smaller pepperoni.
“Good thing we don’t drink much alcohol, I don’t know if the Mayor could afford us.”
Janah, “Only thing I like is a little champagne or wine, the rest of it I can leave.”
“You like the bubbles, you do just as well with a club soda and lemon slice.”
Check the movie schedule. There’s a Jet Li then Reservoir Dogs coming on, one problem solved.
Halfway into Reservoir Dogs, Janah is asleep on my tummy, Nikko spoons in behind her. I finish the movie with the sound so low only I can hear. When it’s over, I click the remote, time for silence and sleep.
Nikko and I are up early, gently stretching, Janah on the phone with the Society.
She disconnects, no cover to flip down on an Iridium encrypted phone. Just a fat antennae.
“We have a lead, a microscopic one, a lead nonetheless. To save time, we’re going to do our own surveillance. Drop your cocks and grab your socks ladies, we can get breakfast and by then we should have a change of vehicle from Durham. We have a two hundred fifty mile drive, then stake out a warehouse.”
Nikko, “Cocks and socks?”
“It’s one of those Marine drill sergeant lines, you know, when they come barging into the barracks at five in the morning to wake up the recruits.”
“I’ll save it to use on Master J, change it up a little.”
“Drop your socks and grab my cock. She likes it when I use that toy you bought for us.”
“At least she’s under somebody’s control.”
“Only when we play. She’s very cooperative then, it excites her. I like her excited, she’s all over me.”
“Girls are fun, bad girls are the most fun.”
Chapter Thirty One III
It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept
that what makes sense doesn’t really make sense.
Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes
We breakfast at a surprisingly good café we happen by. It isn’t that cafes in Chapel Hill can’t be good. It’s just that when taking traveling pot luck it often seems the mediocre ones are the ones that come up. Probably because we tend to stay on the main roads. This spot is off any main street and full of locals. Breakfast heaven, fluffy mega biscuits, cheese and mushroom omelet, grits like mine, no green tea. Janah got a pot of hot water and her own tea bag of Numi gunpowder green, one of the long leaf bagged varieties she prefers. I opt for the same omelet, put half in a plate for Nikko, otherwise she’d have a sliver of bacon and spoon of grits.
Waitress, “Good to see girls that eat like regular people. We get some college girls in here, want egg whites and one slice of whole wheat, no butter, glass of water. I don’t know how they study on that.”
“How are the pancakes?”
Waitress, “Best pancakes in North Carolina honey, just sit, I’ll be right back.”
Right back in Chapel Hill time is about ten minutes, they did have to cook the things after all. Although at the Village Diner, the pancakes would have mysteriously appeared two seconds after the waiter left with the order.
I’m about halfway through, Janah reaching over the table with a fork, helping, “These are exquisite, buttermilk, fresh buttermilk, and that maple syrup is yummy. I prefer to mix it with a tablespoon of cane, I applaud you for having both, and real butter, soft, ready to melt. Pancakes just crisp on the outside, not a layer of Teflon like they get when you leave them too long, full and fluffy inside. Guy I know cooks in a busy diner, he’s a master of short order, he’d be very impressed. I sure am.”
Waitress, “Our guy moved here from New York, worked in a diner there forever, retired, missed cooking. He came in for a while, got to know the owner, started talking food. Next thing he’s in back, food’s been great, place stays full practically all day. Good for me, I stay busy and get more tips. You come for lunch past eleven thirty you’re going to wait half an hour.”
“Well, you got a gem, service is high quality too.”
Waitress, “Thank you, and thanks for coming, I got to get moving, hope to see you again.”
As we organize bags at the hotel, the swap vehicle appears, a panel truck, windows rear and front, tinted near black. A dirt bike is in the truck with crossover tires, wouldn’t handle any serious dirt track, maneuverable on the street, muffled, no whiny noisemaker. We head to Asheville, stop halfway and disguise in the truck. Nikko is leather everything, Janah and I nondescript, baggy jeans, loose sweatshirt, sneakers. I tie my hair in a lose ponytail that runs down the inside of my pullover. Big sunglasses and a watch cap, no way to pick us out over anyone else. Nikko rides the bike the rest of the way, to get the feel of it, what it would and wouldn’t do. She has a black helmet and visor, hair inside her jacket. Tall as she is, with the gloves and boots she could have been a skinny guy.
The plan is to check into an average motel, there’s a Best Western, then take shifts covering a warehouse. Waynesville is a spot in the pavement, population under ten thousand near the Tennessee border, at the southeast edge of the Smoky Mountain National Forest. There are Indian casinos nearby to make sure seniors had a place to deposit their social security checks. Tribal casinos are the native American’s revenge on the white man. Otherwise the town is basically a minor tourist relaxation destination. Friendly people, half dozen B&B’s, RV parks, visit the Smokies, play golf in the spring and summer or drop a few bucks with the Indians, go home. Throw in a little fishing and camping. It’s that kind of place. Residents get tourist money, they aren’t inclined to try and bring piles of people to their town just to inflate property values by decimating their quiet life.
The phone number on the wall at Tommy’s former apartment is to a cell phone for someone named T. Westlake. Checking Westlake for property records in the county uncovered a couple of listings. The Society found a Donald Westlake, who owns a bit of real estate in the area, one piece of which is a warehouse in Waynesville. Another appears to be a swath of acreage around a cabin style house and two outbuildings at the foot of the mountains a few miles out of town. Satellite photos show two vans at the side of one building. This could be exactly nothing, we had no real reason to believe the number on the wall was even written by Tommy, and no reason to believe if it was, it had anything to do with Beth. It’s what we have, so here we are in Waynesville and surrounds.
After getting settled at the motel, we survey the warehouse. I drive around the block, continue one street over, then get out to take a look on foot.
Janah ponders the situation out loud, Nikko listens and watches.
“In the fall, the girl went to school, been reasonably studious, quiet, kept to herself, met this guy. It makes sense. He’d be on the lookout for girls who weren’t surrounded by friends, who wouldn’t drag him to this or that party, introduce him around. He’d pass himself off as, what, working his way through school, a loner job where a girl wouldn’t show up with her friends. Jefferson’s a night security guard. He’d tell her he was in an arcane course of study, perhaps even a graduate student, physics, botany, something he knew enough about to bullshit a young girl. He’d be older, not old, 26 tops, quiet, intense, a little mysterious. He’d smoke a joint, not every time, never press it on her, just to help him relax, the late night job, his studies, it took the edge off, like being with her did. If she freaked about his moderate drug use, he’d drop her and move on. If she didn’t, she’d practically have to beg him to let her try a little, convince him she was cool with it. He’d leave his stash available in case she wanted to chill occasionally, even tell her where the spare key was, so she could let herself in while he was at work.”
Nikko listens, silent, there is only a breeze pushing around dust and dry leaves.
Janah, “How would he hook her? He’d blend the weed, increasingly powerful, lace it with something, opium maybe. She’d be hooked enough in no time, even better if he could get her to take something to help her study, keep her awake in class, just a little, enough to keep her attentive, not so tired. At some point, he’d get her totally screwed up, then hand her over. He evaporates from town like he’d never existed, she wakes up in a room, on vague property surrounded by mountains. In and out of consciousness until they convinced her she’d come there to deal with her drug dependency, prayer meetings, Bible reading, something like that, and more drugs. She’s told they are to help with her addiction. Of course they only insure it. Once she’s zombied, totally lost to herself or any connection to day, night, or her former life, they take her to Canada or Mexico and sell her. Maybe the vans shuttle picking up new girls, taking finished ones a makeshift airstrip and flying them out of the country, or to a water drop, one, maybe two at a time.”
Nikko, “Sounds complicated.”
Janah turns it over, “You’re right, it’s a too expensive and messy a way to slave trade. Flying illegally is riskier these days, and there are younger girls to be had with less trouble. A freak willing to buy a person wasn’t going to balk at buying underage, they want underage. The buyer would be buying a near addict, abducted from the U.S. with clear family connections, not a homeless runaway. Druggies come prepackaged, it isn’t like there is a shortage of girls willing to do most anything for the next fix. If you check out even the free porn on the internet, there isn’t a shortage of girls who’ll do anything for a few bucks, or just for the hell of it. I’m on the wrong track. Not to mention the video, how does that fit? You’re going to make a girl disappear, she needs to disappear. Maybe they think the tape buys time. The scenario has too many holes. How they got her feels right, not why.”
Nikko, “They want her for something, doesn’t appear to be ransom. Surely isn’t to start a real church. There’s plenty of gullible people joining churches already, don’t have to kidnap them.”
Janah revisits the scenario, “Suppose they aren’t in the slave trade at all, they don’t take girls out of the country, there are no mystery buyers? They want girls for their own purposes, they want them compliant and dependant. Could it be that simple? Guys who want total control over a young woman, to have their own slaves. When she’s used up or they’re bored with her, take her to some city and dump her? Or stick her in the ground? In all these forests, she’s permanently gone. Why not just recruit druggies from the start? They’re undependable. It’s better to take a clean girl and slowly get control, you don’t have to undo long term addiction first, get their attention, go through withdrawal, then start over. What else makes it worth the trouble? A druggie may have something nasty you don’t want. It not like they can drag her in for a checkup.”
Nikko, “So why college girls?”
Janah, “It isn’t any fun degrading a girl who could care less what you do to her, she’s already killing herself. A fresh faced innocent, one you personally corrupted, your slave, not just trading herself to anyone for oxy or coke, now that’s a far more depraved thrill. It’s a version of child abuse, just with girls a bit older, old enough so if they get caught, there’s some cover. Even a lame cover of religion would have difficulty squirming out from under the pedophile rock. They might think they can sell the idea they’re helping adults, at least girls of legal age, say they voluntarily joined up. That argument won’t fly if there are adolescents in the mix.”
I scoot into the van, “I followed your story, it’s plausible. Ugly, but plausible. Although I don’t see Mormons having to crawl out from under the pedophile rock.”
Janah, “Good point. They do just enough politics and Bible thumping to keep dancing around it. They marry the girls, have a made up book that says men ought to have multiple wives. That’s crap on the face of it. It’s old guys with a hard on for young flesh using religion to get at it.”
“We going to refocus the entire Mormon church?”
Janah, “Just the old farts with adolescent wives.”
Nikko, “If you two are done goofing, we have the matter at hand. I hope Janah’s wrong, if she’s right….”
“You still can’t kill anyone unless they fall under the rules. Our rules might seem bizarre. It’s the only way Janah will do it and I’ve made certain commitments to the Shaolin. You’ve made certain commitments to me.”
“Perhaps one will fall within the rules, I’ll take that one.”
If Janah is right, I half hope they all fall within the rules.
Janah, “I know what you’re thinking. Protect each other, protect the victims, with all the force necessary to do the job. No more. On the other hand, don’t get so caught up in perfection you leave doors open for the bad guys. Are we clear?”
Two voices, “Hai.”
“Good. I think I’ve concocted a story that fits. Now we can see if it’s real or just my imagination.”
“I’ve seen what I can, it’s a standard stretch of warehouse. There are four, two are open, trucks going in or out, two shut up. No windows, can’t see inside. Maybe from the roof, if there’s a vent or something. It’s nighttime work.”
Janah, “We’ll watch until midnight. If the warehouse is being used for anything illegal, they aren’t likely to be opening up during the day. Let’s evaporate for a while and come back at six or seven. The day people will be gone, the street will be quieter.”
Nikko, “Leave me with the bike. If anything goes on in the next few hours and we aren’t here, we waste time. I’ll call if anyone turns up.”
Janah, “Good idea, let’s do it.”
We pull away from the side of the building. No one shows any interest, no one outside to notice. We drive a half mile and find a dirt road. I back in, Nikko backs out the bike, fires it up, pulls alongside the door.
“Be invisible, stay in touch.”
She nods, pops the clutch, the bike zips back towards the warehouses. Janah and I return to the motel to wait.
“Nothing to do, how about I give you a quick lick and make it stick?”
“You are a bizarre person, make it a long lick and a tongue flick, a bit of that thing you do from behind first.”
She loves analstim, my tongue gets a double delight workout.
Nikko calls around five thirty, “Nothing, warehouse is closed up. I could sit at the front door and no one would see me. No traffic, no pedestrians, not a stray dog.”
“We’re bringing food, tea, coffee, cokes. Need anything else?”
“I have a good place for the bike. Perhaps it’s best to leave it out and available, make following someone easier. On the right, across from the building, half block down. Just pull over, I’ll get in the back door.”
Chapter Thirty Two III
Like Indian underwear,
I'm creepin’ up on you
We’re parked behind an abandoned house, a short block from the warehouse. Nikko and I take shifts watching, me the first for two hours so Nikko could eat and relax. At eight, Nikko comes in behind me silently. I hop off the bike, she takes over. I join Janah pour myself coffee.
“Thermos is working great, tea’s still hot. How’s the coffee?”
I sip, “Hot.”
Janah, “Pays to have a good one. The trick is to fill it with boiling water, pour that out and pour very hot coffee in. It’ll last well past midnight, hopefully we’re out of here by then.”
At eight twenty the phone buzzes, then quits, something at the warehouse. I leave to check it out.
“Panel truck like ours, pulled up to the door, guy got out and opened it, drove in, they shut the door. Couldn’t see much inside, some long tables, it was dark, they didn’t turn on lights until they shut the door.”
I’m going up the stairs in the back of the building. There must be a vent, a fan or something. Nikko’s coming to you.
Janah, Got it.
It’s a still, cold night, the kind of night that makes authors write long descriptive passages about stars, crisp air, various forms of frozen precipitation, or an allusion to it being as cold as something else, something very cold indeed. I’ll spare you. You’re welcome.
I ease across the roof soundlessly. The wind picks up, icy chill. A vent pokes out, covered to protect against rain or snowmelt. I pull out a penlight and a Swiss army knife, manage to loosen the screws on one side of the vent cover and pull it back. I turned off the tiny light and use the screwdriver to crack open the shutters on the vent. I push the vent slightly. It cracks, then a squeak, I wait, listening. My sensitive ears pick up conversation.
“What was that?”
“A noise, sounded like the roof, or the door.”
“Geez, the wind’s started up again, it was gusting when we came from the ranch.”
“Just be quiet a minute.” he looks around, then up at the roof, “What’s that?”
“The ventilation fan, it’s been here since we’ve been using the place, it isn’t new.”
“Never noticed it. Let’s get going.”
It’s getting chilly in this truck, you okay up there?
Toasty, I’m Qi-ing myself down to my fingers and toes. It’s kind of nice up here, if it were a little clearer, the star show would be worth the price. This sure is a tiny little town.
You live in Manhattan, anyplace else is a tiny little town.
I lay flat, peering into the warehouse.
Two guys and, well, well, a girl. Average, no pimp hats in sight, no Glocks or Uzi’s, not even a black leather jacket. They must not watch action movies, they don’t know how to dress.
Maybe they aren’t doing anything illegal.
Lights on over a couple of tables, medical looking equipment, one part is sealed off, under a canopy of plastic. Gotcha! Do you see?
Oh my, their own pharmaceutical factory.
Grow lights blink on, revealing a small marijuana nursery. One guy waters plants, the other occupied at one of the metal pots, looks like cookers. There are stacks of coffee filters and jars of various ingredients, all the pans stained red. The main ingredient for methamphetamine is coated with red dye, a common decongestant. They also use red phosphorus, he stuff the lights up on the end of matchsticks. The process needs careful monitoring or you blow yourself up.
Quite a specialized drug store down there. Some marijuana, a meth lab. No girls being terrorized, no satanic rituals. The guys look like Midwestern college graduate students, all shaved and showered. Guess what?
The third guy is a girl.
Right-o, smarty pants, how’d you know?
I see what you see silly.
I thought I said no peeking.
They obviously have a routine, everyone goes straight to their jobs. No talking, no sampling the product.
I watch for four hours, so much for midnight coffee. The men do plant harvesting. Chop dry leaves, strip stems and seeds. The girl packages up the dope. In between, they cook meth, take the finished product, cut and package it. The cat pee smell of meth production floats up through the vent. During dead time there are cots, a refrigerator. They eat, drink cokes or water, nap. The place was pristine when they’d arrived. Clearly they do their thing, clean up, back to where they came from.
I’m back in the van, “They’re packing up, Nikko should follow them on the bike, we’ll pull in farther behind.”
Twenty minutes later the door to the warehouse slides up. The truck pulls out and stops while the remaining guy shuts the door. He climbs in back, off they go. Nikko is on the bike a block and a half behind. She has the headlight off. It’s the hazy time, pre-daylight. She hangs well back, it isn’t any big deal to follow the truck, they are staying under the speed limit. With a load of methamphetamine and fresh dried weed, it doesn’t pay to risk even the unlikely ticket. At a stop sign, they blinker a left. The road is open now, no signs of the small city or much of anything else, an occasional dot of light from a house in the hills. We have a good idea where they’ll wind up, the place owned by the same company that owns the warehouse. We follow to be sure there isn’t some intermediate stop where Beth might be. Nikko passes the truck and disappears up the road, drives past the spot where they would likely turn. She backs the bike into the woods. The truck slows, turns into the small road up into a stand of trees. There are buildings up there, barely visible from the main road, a few dim lights. She rolls the bike to the highway, waits.
We pull up, Janah opens the back door and slides out the ramp. When the bike is loaded and tied, we drive back to the motel.
Janah, “Time for food, baby.”
“You two get inside, cleaned and warm. I’ll find something.”
I round up breakfast, bags of McDonald’s and drinks. By seven we are settled around the small table eating and watching the news. It’s background noise, nothing much changed. The Middle East is tense. How that ‘s news escapes me.
“If I lived in a place where there was constant tension and ongoing war, I think I’d move.”
Janah, “People can’t though. It’s not as easy as it once was to go to another country, they have to make a life in the one they’re in.”
A reporter comes on and talks over shots of a bombed holy site.
Nikko, “Every pothole in the road over there is a holy site. Too many holy sites. The whole earth is a holy site, not some piece of dirt in a village. What’s so hard?”
Janah, “Honey, most of these people are superstitious and bone dead ignorant. Not stupid, ignorant. It’s all they know. The educated classes, priests and rabbis, make a living off the ignorant. They sure as heck aren’t admitting it’s all bullshit. Look at our own supposedly advanced country, still bloated with people all faithed up, believing in nonsense. On their knees in front of some guy in a funny hat, convinced he’s ordained to intercede on their behalf with a made up God. We’re up to our elbows in religious nonsense. Can’t very well point fingers at someone else.”
“We wear funny clothes sometimes.”
Janah laughs, “Yes, but we don’t believe that God has a list of requirements for us. I can’t do philosophy right now. Can you find us an action movie? I don’t care what, I’ve got to think.”
I surf. Even at seven thirty in the morning I find old Jean Claude saving someone from something. I shower, Janah stretches on the couch under a blanket, head on Nikko’s crossed leg. Jean Claude sends bad guys to intensive care. The movie ends a half hour later, we brush and flush, pile up in the bed, asleep in minutes.
We’re out for six hours, start stirring around two that afternoon.
“I haven’t felt any plan go through my head, I presume we’re going to take our chances. You’re still wrestling with what they’re doing at all.”
Janah, “I’ve been through a dozen scenarios, for now I have to fall back on Occam’s Razor.”
“That’s going to hurt.”
Janah giggles, “Let me rephrase, I’m going with the simplest explanation that makes sense. She’s been kidnapped for ransom or she’s being used for entertainment. My last choice is to generate money by selling her. Too much risk for too little reward. All the choices are ugly.”
Nikko, “Anything someone can think of, no matter how ugly, someone else has already done. I come from a culture where men used to cut open their own bellies for being shamed. How stupid is that? I come from the only culture that ever actually experienced nuclear weapons, live and in person. The horrible consequence of American fear and the prideful samurai mentality. By comparison, what is stealing girls for self gratification? These guys are small scale compared to our so called leaders. Pick a country.”
Janah, “Yes, yes, you’re right of course. Sometimes, it’s like I’m one of the crucified in Life of Brian, hanging on a cross singing, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’”
Nikko, “The bright side is us finding this girl and putting the crazies on crosses. If mistress releases me, there won’t be enough left to feed the dogs. Nikko is not Shaolin.”
“Mistress is Shaolin and won’t release you. You can do what’s necessary to get them in a compliant mood.”
“Cooperation is guaranteed.”