Forty One

We get to the Hampton and crash, not the car, us. Set my phone to wake up at six, five and a half hours sleep, better than driving on a state road that’s bound to be dark as death.
It seems like I just went out when the alarm goes off. Up and make coffee, check with Zoe C.
“We’re stirring, can you fix Zelda’s bowl?”
I do, a few minutes later a knock, I let the beast in, a pat then she’s off to her breakfast. Zoe C walks her while Elle and I stow our stuff in the Hyundai. Coffee in hand, we’re on the road.
In thirty we’re approaching  Kramer Junction, there’s an ARCO convenience store, time to gas up the car. While the pump pumps, Zoe C and Elle take Zelda for a walk. I see Zoe C sticking the boy’s t-shirt under Zelda’s nose, a long shot but there’s not much here and this is the most convenient gas off 58.
As the pump clicks off they come running, “Chef, Zelda has a scent. Doesn’t mean a lot, but the boy was here.”
I go inside, a clerk on a stool behind the counter.
“How long have you been here? I mean this shift.”
“Came in an hour ago.”
I show him the photo of the kid, describe the van.
He shakes his head, “Not since I’ve been on. Maybe the all night clerk, but he’s gone now.”
“What about the camera?”
“It only covers the counter, if the boy was standing where you are, maybe.”
“It should have been in the last twenty four hours, can I see the video?”
He looks dubious, “I…um…don’t know.”
I pull a hundred out of my wallet, “How about now?”
“I’ll load it up.”
At least we have fresh coffee and the doughnuts just came in. We never did get to dinner, the doughnuts taste like gourmet.
Elle and I follow the video, Zoe C stays outside with Zelda.
Thirty minutes later, Elle, “Look, there he is, the man is out of the ball cap and jacket too.”
He’s older, maybe fifty, gone to bald with a circle of hair around his head. Glasses, black frame, not fat, plump-ish. They boy puts a couple of candy bars on the counter, and a soft drink. The man buys a package of cigarettes, the generic whatevers. It’s hard to tell what the boy is thinking, at least here are no visible marks, but it’s a grainy video, Arco isn’t much for the latest technology. Damn, he pays cash, no credit card to trace. To make it worse, the intersection of 58 and 395 is coming up and we have no clue which way they went. And we’re in the middle of the Mojave desert. There’s a wind farm, huge turbines as far as I can see.
I thank the kid, pay for our stuff, go out to tell Zoe C what we have.
“Need to call Long or Barry.”
“Not their jurisdiction, but they can get in touch with the locals here with a lot more cred than we have.”
I put in the call, Long picks up, “Yeah?”
“It’s Chef. We have the boy on video at a convenience store in Kramer Junction, Arco station. The kid behind the counter just came on, but he let us look at the store video.”
“You sure it’s the kid?”
“Yep,” I go on to describe the man.
“Stay put, lemme make a call, the Highway Patrol covers that area.”
Fifteen minutes later I’m talking to the staties, Long and Barry are on the line verifying me. 
The two cops look at the video, “Seven thirty yesterday evening. We have the description of the van, and the boy, you’re right, that’s him. Good work.”
“Good luck, I stopped for gas, our dog picked up the scent.”
He looks over at Zelda standing next to the Hyundai, in front of Zoe C.
“Hell of a dog, what do they call them again?”
“Neapolitan Mastiff, she’s only half grown.”
“Damn. Looks serious too.”
“She’s protective of her family, which is us, that’s how they are. She’s harmless unless somebody does something stupid, like reach for one of the girls, or me too I suppose. So, what now?”
“We get busy. Of course, he could be long gone after twelve hours, but the whole world has his plate, photo of the boy and description of the van. He’s done unless he goes to ground.”
“When he snatched the boy, he was wearing what we think is a Dodgers cap and jacket. In the video he’s changed, at least lost the cap and jacket.”
“Wonder why the kid didn’t say something.”
“Scared, maybe he threatened to do something to the boy or to his parents, he has brothers and sisters too.”
He nods, “That would do it, keep him in line. Thanks for your help folks, we’ll take it from here.”
“Only seems right, the boy must be terrorized.”
“Let’s hope that’s all he is.”
I nod, “You done with us?”
“Just let me know where I can reach you.”
I give him one of my corporate phones, which is not much of a help, he has my driver’s license detail. Fortunately my license address is a private mail box, not my home address. He doesn’t ask about the girls except to take their names.
We pile in and pull away.
Zoe C, “We aren’t just going home?”
“No, we’re going to snoop, lots of daylight. The only thing we do is decide which road to take. I’m guessing he stays on 58, if he took 395 north or south, it’s out of our hands.”
We creep down 58, well, sort of, there’s so little anything out here, just desert. I’m only doing forty, there are no other cars and it gives Elle a chance to scan the territory with the binoculars. Mojave comes up.
“If we say on the main 58, we go north, or the alternate 58 takes us into Mojave. From there we take 14 south to the 5 and go home.”
Zoe C, “Damn, so much territory, and for all we know he took 14 north or stayed on 58.”
Elle, still looking through the binocs, “We did more than the cops, pointed them to Kramer Junction, got them a video and made the connection about the van alterations. Wait Chef, pull over.”
I do, “What do you have?”
“A lone, very lone, house. Solar panels, the place looks small, I can see the tippy tail end of a black something. Can you get closer?”
“If it’s him and he spots a car headed down the road…”
“Veer right when you turn in, you should be able to make it, it’s just dirt and a few rocks, mini boulders, half as high as our car.”
I follow instructions, creep along to minimize dust. I want to look like I might be looking for desert fauna, or rattlesnakes, no interest in the wood frame house. I stop.
“Stay in the car, I’m going to walk around like I’m looking for something, something not in the direction of the house.”
I walk east, pull my phone and pretend to be taking pictures. I have no idea if the house is the abductor’s, or if whoever is inside is paying me any attention, Elle has the binoculars trained on the house.
I walk back and get in.
Elle, “Not so much as a fluttering curtain.”
“Let’s get alongside the rear, see if you can see the plate.”
I ease right and go deeper but at an angle away from the house.
“Stop, it’s the plate…and there’s the scratch, gotcha asshole.”
Zoe C, “Do we barge in for the rescue, or call the constabulary?”
“We have no good reason to rush in. If he’s hurt the boy, that’s done and we aren’t going to fix it. Let’s move along, get back to the road. Zoe C, call the Highway Patrol.”
We wait on the roadside, away from a line of sight of the house. What we can see is that the van hasn’t moved. Ten minutes later a cruiser pulls in behind me, no lights, no siren, as we suggested.
The patrolmen get out of their car, I’m leaning against the Hyundai, it’s the same cops we talked to at the Arco.
“Thought you were going home.”
“Me too, this is one way to get there. My friend spotted the butt end of the van, I wandered in far enough to verify the plate. Who’s inside and what’s going on, I have no idea.”
“Stay here, we’re going to have a look.”
“Got it.”
They return to the cruiser, down the road, pull off on the stretch of dirt that leads to the house. I can’t see much, we aren’t close, I use the binocs.
“One cop is going to the door, the other around back, guns drawn. Door cop knocks, nothing so far, he bangs on the door with a big ass flashlight.”
The door opens, a flash and a bang, the cop falls backwards, the door closes.
“Get in and buckle up, the second cop is in trouble.”
The Hyundai screams down the dirt track, second cop has run to the front of the house, I see him pull a two way radio, talking and pulling his partner away from the door. I shoot past, circle the house and pull up next to the van, on the away side from the house. Jump out and open my flick knife. I slice the valve stems on the front and rear tires, he isn’t going anyplace in this van.
As I figured, he comes out the back door with the boy, holding him up with an arm around his chest like a bulletproof vest. I go flat and crawl to the front of the van.
He’s working the driver’s door while trying to control the boy. I rise up and point the Glock at his head.
“Forget it Bubba, it’s over.”
He looks at me, part surprise, part anger, “Not while I got this kid,” he has a knife, don’t know what he did with the shotgun, but it isn’t out here now.
I put the gun down, “Look, I’m unarmed, I just want the boy safe, hand him over and you can split, just get in the van, leave him here.”
He makes his final mistake, still toting the kid, comes at me with the knife, I almost want to grin.
Zelda is behind him, she takes three strides and is up, her teeth sink into his neck, he drops the boy, I’m on him before it can occur to him to use the knife on his unseen captor. Zoe C grabs the boy, Elle has her Glock tapping the back of asshole's head.
I give Zelda the command to release, she does but doesn’t back off. He moves his head, she sticks her muzzle against his neck and growls. Not a little dog growl, a grizzly growl, he stops motionless.
“You gonna let that dog kill me?”
“Crossed my mind.”
A million cops show up. I exaggerate, but it’s more than a few, the place is lit up with red and blue and strobe flashers, good thing I’m not epileptic.
Every cop wants to ask us questions, I decline on my behalf and the girls. Nobody wants to question Zelda.
“Who’s in charge out here?”
“Bannerman,” one cop says, nods to a guy my size with lots of filigree.
I walk over, ‘You the man on this?”
Bannerman, “I am.”
“Here’s what I need. My friends and I need to go home. You have the abductor, the boy is safe. I called in enough detail to get your people here. Is the officer who got shot okay?”
“Yeah, buckshot, it’ll hurt but he’s good.”
“Great. Now, you boys take credit for figuring this out, we will be invisible. No statements, no reports, no court, no nothing.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Hang on.”
I call a friend, a criminal attorney, who happens to have had stock in my company, who made three million when I sold it. I explain the situation, he listens.
“I’ll make a call, sit tight.”
We piddle for twenty, Bannerman tries questions but he’d have better luck getting answers out of Zelda.
A phone dings, Bannerman pulls an android out of one of his many pockets, “Sir, yes sir…but…they have…no, no sir, it’s definitely not my job to decide what they have. Yes sir they did, yes sir I’ll take care of it, yes sir, right now sir.”
Bannerman puts his phone away, he grins, “Never had cause to speak to the Governor before, get out of here.”
“You’re a Captain, next promotion is Assistant Chief, and your first star, right?”
“Well, yeah, in about a hundred years.”
“How about next month?”
“Fucking impossible.”
“Enjoy the new status.”
He shrugs, “I wish, got twins going to college next year.”
“What they want, how’d you know?”
“I went to Stanford. Best of luck….Chief.”
“Yeah yeah, get lost.”

Forty Two

A month goes by, nice and quiet, I get a call, it’s Bannerman.
“How’d you do it?”
“Afternoon Chief, enjoying the star?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I didn’t do anything but report a good crop of cops who busted hump to find a stolen little boy. Those same good cops let me and my friends stick our noses in a bit, lots of cops would have kicked us to the curb early on.”
“Your people were armed, not unusual around here, still.”
“It’s a dangerous world.”
“That it is. There are bunch of people out there, men mostly, we drag in for domestics, the wife or live-in is scared, doesn’t press or drops charges. We know she’s in for more, the same or even worse. It’s frustrating, we know there will be another call, we can’t help until a charge is made. Some of the calls involve the woman shot or strangled. If we could have faced down the perp, maybe she’s alive.”
“Yeah, I know a bit about it.”
“You willing to help?”
“Sure, I can even make it easy,” I give him the address of the Tor website, “it’s untraceable, instructions are on the site. I have no idea who set it up, but it’s my understanding that abusers are taught to see the light.”
“You wouldn’t have anything to do with….never mind, I don’t want to know.”
“Neither do I. Of course, you’re always welcome to call. The number you called is an encrypted Sat phone, no tracing, totally anonymous. The number that will show on your end has no reality, if you dial it, you get the three squeaks then ‘that number has been lost at sea’ message. You need a Sat phone for yourself.”
“I’m on one now.”
“There you go, it’s anonymous on both ends.”
“Sometimes we could use information other jurisdictions or agencies are reluctant to provide. I think they want to, but they have…restrictions.”
“Call me, we can serve as intermediaries. I don’t say who’s asking, I don’t tell you who’s telling me. Here’s the thing, the favors work both ways, I may contact you looking for information.”
“Anything else?”
“Not on my end.”
“Have a good day Chief,” we click off.
How about that, a new contact.
It’s about tea time, I boil the water, stick a few bags of green in, round up sugar cookies and put the plate on the dining table. Zoe C  comes in, it’s Friday and maybe Natalie can make it tonight.
“Elle’s in the shower. So, you wound up with another connection, the Highway Patrol Captain, now an Assistant Chief.”
“I didn’t even feel you in my head.”
“I have a Shaolin Mind, it can walk through walls, even your thick skull.”
“Umm, is the space inside vacant?”
She laughs, “Don’t be coy, or fish for compliments.”
Elle comes in, God she’s hot, the slinky t-shirt and nothing makes the room feel warmer, or maybe I feel warmer.
Elle sees me enjoying, “Hey Chef, you look a bit flushed.”
“Don’t be coy, or fish for compliments.”
Zoe C laughs, “I just told him that. You know exactly why he’s mesmerized.”
Elle, “I fail to see what’s wrong with compliments, I don’t need to fish, his eyes give him away.”
“Sit down and have tea, eat a cookie, and stay out of my libido.”
She giggles, Elle is sooo cute.
We sit and sip, Zoe C says, “Elle wants in.”
“I should think after last month Elle is in.”
Elle, “Yeah but I haven’t killed anyone.”
“Why do you think we killed anyone?”
“I don’t know that you have. I do know the elaborate target practice in the desert a hundred fifty miles from here isn’t for entertainment.”
“And what do you think it’s for?”
“To deliver consequences.”
“Can you deliver consequences? You stuck your Glock in the puke’s neck, which was good, but pointing the gun and pulling the trigger aren’t the same, not when a human being is on the wrong end of the weapon.”
“Understood. Only one way to find out.”
I look at Zoe C, “Elle understands, even if she doesn’t do the deed, being there implicates her just the same?”
Zoe C, “We went through that. What’s for dinner?”
My phone dings, a message from Natalie, ‘be there in an hour’.
I helplessly grin.
Zoe C, “That’s the ‘Natalie’s coming’ dopey grin.”
Elle, “Jaysus, it’s like you two are in each other’s heads.”
“Our wavelengths are in synch, we can’t explain it, I’m twelve years older, but it’s like we’re twins.”
Elle, “That’s so cool.”
Zelda is poking my thigh, I get up and find a couple of dog treats, the chewy meaty kind. It’s not dinner yet, she can’t have a sugar cookie. I toss one, snap, swallow. I put the second on the floor.
“Try to savor it girl.”
She comes over, gives it a lick, then chomp, swallow, gone.
“Close enough,” I scratch her head.
Zoe C, “It’s about time for her dinner,” she fills the bowl, Zelda is through it in thirty seconds, then a long drink of water.
She trots over, slides open the patio door, then slides open the screen door, off up the hill for private business.
I close the screen, she can let herself in later.
“Dinner is meatloaf, brown gravy and mashed, all day green beans, cornbread.”
Elle, “You do know how to turn a girl’s head.”
Clear off tea stuff, we’d talked through and past, right up to cocktails.
“Beer, Champagne or red?”
Zoe C, “Red.”
Elle, “Vodka rocks, olive, like yours Chef.”
The alarm system beeps, that means the gate is opening.
“Natalie’s here.”
While I make cocktails, the girls and Zelda go to greet Natalie. Zelda is first, she does her sniff check confirming its Natalie, not an avatar, they come in chattering away. I smile, the girls genuinely like each other, they’re all Alpha Girls, confident, self-assured, not requiring reassurance.
Natalie kisses me, “Hey big boy, you busy tracking down child snatchers again?”
“Not this week, we made a connection, expanded our network by one.”
Natalie knows we occasionally do anonymous networking for various agencies. She doesn’t know we occasionally kill people, she doesn’t need to, likely doesn’t want to. Since I’ve never inquired, I don’t actually know how she’d respond. The point is, in regards to our vigilante escapades, what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
“Is that meatloaf? Basics are the best.”
“Yep, with mashed and green beans southern style, cornbread which is just wrapping up, I need to take it out and let it rest for a few.”
Zoe C, “Cocktails, what’s your preference?”
Natalie, “Gotten addicted to Elijah Craig, any around?”
“Sure thing, rocks, splash?”
“You bet, thank you.”
Zoe C is simply making a cocktail for a friend. Natalie isn’t a guest any longer, she’s been here too many times. She’s free to poke around the booze refrigerator and take whatever she wants. They go poolside, Zelda with them, she loves the early evening, sunlight just peeking over the horizon, the sun itself gone. Temps will drop, Zoe C turns on the outdoor heaters.
Elle, “Zoe C is getting weird, do you know she can read Chef’s thoughts?”
Natalie, “Not all of them I hope.”
Zoe C, “Elle exaggerates. I’ve known him long enough, reading his intentions comes with time together. I do have flashes of thought in my head, thoughts that he seems to be thinking. It doesn’t work the other way. And I have to be in the vicinity, nothing happens if I’m at Sprout’s and he’s here.”
Natalie, “You two have an obvious connection. Good thing you’re a lez or I might have to take strong measures.”
They laugh, Natalie sometimes sleeps with Elle and Zoe C, other times with me. If anyone would be stricken with the jealousy disease it would be me. I’m immune. I started with Natalie when she was doing escort work to pay for college, she’s had intimacies with several men, including me when I paid her. Now, she got a job in investment banking and Goldman pays her a lot of money. Escort got dropped and she got out of UCLA with a Masters in Finance and zero debt. I wasn’t jealous when she was in the business, certainly not when she plays with Elle and Zoe C.
Natalie, “You should explore it further, you know, sit across from each other and attempt to communicate mind to mind. Nothing lost by trying.”
Zoe C, “Good point. This weekend is for fun, next week maybe we’ll give it a go.”
“Dinner ladies. You can eat at the patio table, but come in and fix plates, seems simpler.”
They do. I always smile at meals. Girls talk about diets and weight, but if someone else makes the food that crap goes out the window.

Forty Three

Must be my lucky day, night, Natalie opts for me to play bedroom antics, maybe it was the green beans all cooked down with bacon, ham shank and onion. I’ll have to keep it in mind.
Saturday morning. We crashed around midnight, it’s seven thirty when I start to regain consciousness. I do bathroom things, Natalie comes in and does her bit then pushes me out and onto the bed.
“Not finished with you stud, lay back, I’ll take care of the rest.”
And she does, now I’m wondering if it was the cornbread, she had two chunks.
She rolls off, “Fuck and double fuck, that was lovely, now I’m hungry again even after I pigged last night.”
I roll my eyes, the girls eat, pigged is a stretch.
“Breakfast requests?”
“Omelet with anything.”
Back to the bathroom to re-refresh, out to the kitchen. What do you know, Zoe C and Elle are doing laps, closely guarded by Zelda. Too early for her to actually climb in and sit on the pool steps, she’s lying on her tummy watching.
I slide open the screen, “Zelda been fed yet?”
Zoe C is climbing out, “No,” despite my morning sexual encounter, her long lovely isn’t lost on me.
I do my duty and pour Zelda’s bowl, take it outside with her massive water bowl. She makes it disappear in under a minute then trots up the hill.
Zoe C rinses under the pool shower, Elle climbs out, another vision. Natalie is behind me.
“They are almost unreal.”
“Two of three unreal women I know,” I turn and slip my arms around her wasp waist, gentle kisses.
She pours a coffee for me, another for her, takes it out to enjoy the sunny Malibu morning. I get busy with eggs, I’ll show them, cheese and three pepper omelets with buttery grits. They won’t want bread, maybe tomorrow I’ll do French toast, everyone likes French toast.
They collect omelets, I spoon grits into bowls and take them out, I added cream cheese, I must admit, they are tasty.
Natalie, “Chef this is totally better than a restaurant, didn’t you guys talk about opening one, or a couple?”
“Yes, life got in the way. We’ll pick up the project maybe, right now our lives are as full as we want them to be. Elle is perfecting her algorithm, plus taking classes, Zoe C takes a class or two a semester, you have a full plate at Goldman. It’s the weekend, playtime, what do you want to do?”
Natalie, “Selfishly, swim, hike the property, have a Krav session, nap, enjoy my friends. If we don’t go anywhere, I’m good.”
Elle, “Where would we go better than here? I’m with Nat.”
Zoe C, “Unanimous.”
Zelda’s happy, although with her deadpan expression it’s hard to tell, she doesn’t run around tail wagging trying to please. She’ll never make it as a corporate suck up.
“I’m thinking shrimp and crab cocktails for lunch, crackers, beet salad, or are you tired of that?”
Zoe C, “Beets and onions are good for us, you adding shredded cabbage? Even better.”
“Take care of the breakfast dishes Zoe C, I’ll get to the market and buy the seafood. Fairly light lunch, tonight is veal lasagna, creamed spinach and ciabatta.”
Elle, “Can you get a pie or cake from Louisa? Tell you what, I’ll take a ride and we can pick something out.”
We take the Hyundai, the Bentley is sexier, we’re on a short mission to buy seafood and dessert, not pulling up to some LA hot spot. Although, if we were, Elle would have no problem blasting through the velvet rope and finding herself parked in the VIP section.
Elle, “Nothing on the abuser radar?”
“No, of course there are women being abused, but our site is a tiny dot in the infinite internet. We’re developing a network, doing favors, getting favors. We have to move slowly, don’t need a spy in the ointment.”
She smiles, “Nice pun.”
“How’s your algorithm?”
“As far as I can tell, there’s nothing left to tweak. If I’m going to let the program figure out the game, I have to let it work. At least you understand the situation, the stock market is the collective bet of millions of investors. When the news flow turns one way or the other, prices fluctuate, more buyers the market goes up, more sellers the market goes down. One way to have the program learn is to let it figure out the market and stock fundamentals. Earnings reports, earnings projections, interest rates, sales volume, acquisitions, divestments, the entire panoply of financial fluctuation. The other way is to look at the flow of transactions as nothing more than how much is being bought and how much is being sold, and the consequent price changes. No stories, no big, mid, or small cap, just the raw data of volume and price.”
“And yours sticks it’s toe in both.”
“Not yet, it’s only tracking numbers. If it works, the stock does better than the market, great. If it doesn’t work, the program takes that into account and searches for anomalies, why didn’t it work.”
“What do you do about black swans?”
“If my algorithm could predict black swans, I would own the world. There is no predicting black swans.”
We’re at Louisa’s.
“Ola Louisa, this is Elle, Zoe C’s pal, mine too for that matter. She’s the dessert decider today.”
Louisa, “Nothing to decide,” she goes in back, returns with a pie, “cherry pie with crumble on top, oats, flour butter, all the very best.”
Elle, “Sold, that looks delicious.”
That was hard, we scoot over to Sprouts, jumbo cooked shrimp, three containers of lump crab, a purple cabbage and a loaf of ciabatta.
Elle, “Need anything else?”
“May as well pick up more kefir, and a few bags of cranberries. I have the ingredients for the lasagna.”
We check out and head for the house.
When we return Zoe C and Natalie are nowhere to be seen. At first I think they went to Zoe C’s room to play, but I don’t see Zelda either.
“Girls must be on a hike around the property, giving Zelda a bit of exercise.”
We put away the seafood, kefir and cranberries, leave the pie on the island to tempt ourselves all day.
Elle goes off, returns deliciously nude and parks herself on a patio lounger. Zelda comes from across the pool and sits next to the pool shower, no trouble guessing what she wants. Zoe C and Natalie appear, yum, nude hiking, well, sneakers, but feet don’t count.
Natalie sits in the lounger next to Elle, Zoe C is streaming water over Zelda with the shower wand on a soft pulse. After her tummy massage, she rolls over and stands, a giant shake then to her water bowl I just filled which she empties.
She comes inside and sits next to me staring. 
“Okay monster,” I get up and get a couple of her meaty chewy treats, toss, swallow, toss, swallow.
“You have no concept of enjoyment do you?”
She huffs and stretches out on the floor. What time is it, ten thirty. I can wait an hour, then do the seafood cocktails. I’ll put lump crab over a bed of shredded cabbage, then hang jumbo shrimp over the edges of the bowls. Cocktail sauce in a bowl on the side, they can spoon on as much or little as they wish. Crispy butter crackers will accompany. 
I walk to the patio door, “Anyone for a Bloody Mary?”
Three simul-yeses, I get insulated tumblers from the freezer, spicy V8 from the refrigerator, pickled okra and cocktail onions, Worcestershire, black pepper, vodka.
“Here you are girls, mixed nuts in the bowl, enjoy. Lunch at twelve thirty, is that good?”
Natalie, “After the Bloody Mary, I’m feeling cranberry Champagne, is that doable?”
“Easy peazy,” I’ll use a brut sparkling wine, I refuse to put additives in Gosset or Charles Heidsieck, anymore than I would put Russian Standard in a Bloody Mary. Some things just aren’t done, I don’t care how rich I am.
They sip and munch, I go to the office and check on our website. There’s a new query, from flipping Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta called Sandy Springs.
I read the message, ‘I don’t know if you can help me. My husband has been holding our daughter captive in the basement. He is super religious, she’s just hit puberty and has the associated hormonal urges. He caught her…pleasuring herself and whipped her with a belt. A couple of weeks later he took her phone and saw that she was texting a boy. It was nothing, no suggestion of sex, no requests for anything sexual or improper, just two teens going on about school and music. That’s when he forced her into the basement, put a one way deadbolt on the door. She’s been down there three months. He brings her food, there is at least a small bathroom, but no shower. She has to clean up with washrags. I am not allowed to talk to her, although when he’s gone she cries to me from the other side of the door. If I go to the authorities, he says he will kill her and me. I believe him, he has guns and waves his pistol around all the time. I can’t leave, my baby is locked in a basement, I don’t know what he would do if I reported anything. I don’t care what happens to me, can you help my daughter, she’s done nothing. I am desperate, I don’t even know if this site is real.’
I reply, ‘First, we need name, address, place of employment for husband, description of car, license plate, any other relevant detail, does he hang with friends, where? We also need any evidence, photo, even audio. If you can’t get into the basement, at least video the door and deadbolt, tell your daughter to say something for the audio.’
Nothing to do but see if she responds. I go to the kitchen to create lunch.

Forty Four

Zoe C comes in, the other girls are showering outside, “We have work?”
“Maybe, waiting on a reply. We can’t take the word of someone, we don’t know them and this one is just outside Atlanta, a burb called Sandy Springs. I’m not flying out blind. She has to demonstrate something credible like a video of herself talking to her daughter through the door. If it appears real, like obviously a door to a basement, we can surmise nobody puts a one way deadbolt on an interior door, it makes no sense unless you have something inside you don’t want to let out.”
“We have to fly out and verify.”
“Yep, so we wait and see what if any reply we get.”
Elle and Natalie come in.
“Find a spot, cranberry sparkling wine and seafood cocktails coming up.”
They park inside around the dining table, I serve, they enjoy. Zelda gets a fat shrimp, no sparkling wine, she doesn’t seem to mind.
A second round of drinks, I’ve stayed with sugar free Coke, the girls are giggly and animated.
“Going for a swim, Zoe C, clear the dishes when you guys are done. Zelda can watch me lap the pool.”
Zoe C, “Got it.”
I don’t swim nude, I’m not shy but not wanting to do a Weinstein either. I have a common over the thigh swimsuit, no Speedo, I’m not entering the Olympics. Zelda sits on her halfway in the pool spot, I stroke back and forth until I’m bushed. I don’t know how many laps or what time it is, I do know I’ve had enough. Go to my room , hot shower, stretch out on the bed and disappear for two.
Girls must be in Zoe C’s, don’t know if they played or napped, and it’s none of my business.
I recheck the website, a reply, with a video, Zoe C comes in.
“Take a look.”
The woman did a decent job of it, we can see her and hear her daughter, she’s begging for someone to get her free, it’s sad…and fucking irritating.
Zoe C, “When do we leave?”
“Natalie goes home tomorrow, by then it’s too late to fly to Atlanta, we lose three hours to the clock after a four hour plane ride.”
“We should leave early Monday then, or we waste one more day with a girl locked in a basement. Fly out at five, we’re in by noon Atlanta time.”
“Okay, call Blue Sky and book us, get a hotel and a car. You want Elle?”
“She’ll want to go if we tell her, and it’s not like it costs any more, the plane is by the hour not by the passenger.”
“Here’s his address and his business address. Get a hotel in the vicinity, Atlanta’s a big place and we don’t need to drive for an hour to get to the target.”
“Will do, in fact, if you give me the chair, I can get it set right now.”
I go to the kitchen, make tea, black today, with three cheeses and crackers. When food comes out, girls appear, it’s like magic.
Natalie, “Bleu cheese, cheddar, what’s the other?”
“Jarlsberg, like Swiss but a more buttery flavor, softer.”
She puts a slice on a cracker, takes a bite, “This is nice.”
“Zoe C found it at Sprout’s, although it’s fairly common, you could pick it up at most supermarkets.”
Elle, “Where’s Zoe C?”
“In the office, she’ll be along shortly.”
I drop a piece of Jarlsberg for Zelda who’s been leaning against my leg, she looks up at me, “Okay, one more then go away.”
She gulps the second then moves to the other side of the island, looks around, somebody’s missing. She goes in search of Zoe C. They come back together.
Natalie, “Zelda isn’t happy unless she can see everyone, that’s so sweet,” she strokes the beast’s head.
“You guys get a nap? I conked for almost two.”
Elle, “We relaxed.”
I’m layering the lasagna, tender veal in small chunks, sliced mushrooms, rich sauce, pasta strips, in the oven for a slow cook. Spinach is a two minute project. The girls are finishing up tea, Zoe C puts away the cheese and crackers, then fills Zelda’s bowl. When she’s emptied it, about thirty seconds of dining pleasure, slurps half a bowl of water, they follow her outside. It’s a beautiful cool Malibu evening, perfect for a hike around the property.
I open two crispy Chiantis, stick them back in the refrigerator, they can breathe chilled air, we like all our wines cold. I’ll slice ciabatta into inch pieces, coat with clarified butter and sprinkle on garlic powder. The spinach is Emeril’s standard, ordinary creamed with a hint of nutmeg.
“Damn Chef, this is sooo tasty, chunks of veal tender as a mother’s heart, sexy sauce and sliced mushrooms.”
“Thank you, there’s a recipe for everything in the internet. I do add or subtract things here and there but for the most part I just follow the directions.”
“It comes out so good.”
“I think people rush the cooking, and sometimes I adjust the recommended temperature twenty five degrees one way or the other, mostly lower. There’s not much need for temps higher than three fifty in my estimation. I added yellow and red peppers to the lasagna, and just a hint of habanero powder, liven it up a bit.”
Elle, “We got a cherry crumble pie from Louisa, it was still warm, I wanted to cut myself a slice on the way home. Instead went for restraint, it wouldn’t look as pretty with a hunk cut out.”
“If you want it a la mode, we have Ben and Jerry’s Vanilla.”
Natalie, “A small scoop for me whenever it’s dessert time. I’m going to need a couple of hours first.”
I cut out two more squares of lasagna, cut them in half and spread around to the girls and me.
“There’s more is you want it.”
Zoe C, “Tomorrow I’m running a thousand miles, then swimming another thousand. Right now I could use another spoon of creamed spinach.”
Elle gives Zoe C a serving spoonful, “Anyone else?”
Natalie and I decline, Elle scrapes the rest on her plate.
It’s rewarding to see the girls enjoy my efforts, and I must admit, the lasagna is superb.
Natalie, “Buzz off Chef, we’ll clear and clean, you can find us a movie, I’ll bring Cognac in a bit.”
Zelda follows me to the couch, stretches out on her big bed, her eyes roll up to check on me. I reach down and give her a few soft strokes, big beast, her jowls flop down her cheeks. She turns to her side and drifts off.
“Has anyone seen an oldie with Paul Newman called Cool Hand Luke?”
Three no’s, the movie was in theaters twenty years before they were born, hell, even I wasn’t born yet. I queue it up and pause until everyone can get situated. I’m in one corner of the couch, Natalie brings me a Cognac, takes one of the throw pillows and lays with her head in my lap, pulls her knees up into fetal position. Zoe C and Elle are on the other end sharing a snifter of Cognac. I start the movie and we watch a laconic don’t give a damn Paul Newman in a backwater prison with a sadistic warden and a group of prisoners stuck there for little or no good reason. I don’t count free roadwork by the prisoners as a good reason.
Halfway through, I pause the movie, the girls serve warm cherry crumble with a scoop of vanilla bean, then back to Paul and George Kennedy fighting each other, then the system. It doesn’t end well for either of them.
Natalie, “That was good, unlike today’s action hero crap, it seemed real, believable.”
Elle, “Yeah, it did, guy who played the warden did a good job.”
“Strother Martin, long time character actor. He had a busy career, TV series, big time and small time movies. He lived up the road, in Thousand Oaks, but he died in, I don’t know, the late seventies or early eighties. None of us were around then.”
Zoe C, “Who played the hot girl washing the car?”
“No clue, look up the cast.”
“Joy Harmon, let’s see, born in 1940, she was twenty seven when the movie was made. She had the right stuff then, quite a sexy scene for 1967.”
“George Kennedy…what comes to mind, oh yeah, A Clint Eastwood movie, The Eiger Sanction. That was excellent, lots of action and fun.”
Natalie, “Never heard of it.”
“It was a mid seventies movie, you weren’t here for that either. It was based on a book, author used the pseudonym Trevanian. I forget his real name, but he had a number of successful novels.”
Zoe C, “We can catch it next weekend.”
We wrap the evening, Zelda lets herself out for a pre-bed pee, the rest of us go off to do our pre-bed rituals. Natalie bunks with Zoe C and Elle, can hardly blame her. I’m tired anyway, it isn’t fifteen before I’m in the land of the unconscious.

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