Forty Nine

We had a lovely weekend, Natalie much relieved after we put a plan in place. I called one of my lawyers, he’s calling around to find an attorney in Stamford familiar with the child welfare system.
Elle and I take them to the airport, Blue Sky private, when we return my phone dings.
“It’s Leon, I got a name, I called her, she’s going to meet the lady, Natalie, right?”
“Yep, they’re at the Sheraton Stamford, she have Nat’s number?”
“Nope, I didn’t have it, I do have the attorney’s, Laura Lansford.”
He gives me the number, “Thanks Leon, much appreciated, send me the bill.”
“No bill, you’re trying to do something good, it took me fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll try to find something billable, we may want to start an LLC, or some entity to handle money management. Not ready yet, but it’s shaping up.”
“What’s the premise, I know you aren’t starting yet another common manager, the world is infested with those guys already.”
“An equity program managed solely by artificial intelligence, no human interference once my contact has the algorithm tweaked to her satisfaction. So far she’s keeping pace, as you know, the market has gone melt up, investors are chasing returns, which always ends badly.”
“You going in?”
“I’m in, the sole investor.”
“I want in, that’s my fee, if it works, great, if it bombs, I presume it won’t all go to zero.”
“No, if it fails to at least keep pace within five or so percent, we stop.”
“How much you in for?”
“A million.”
“Can I add a half to it?”
“Sure, although we haven’t named it anything yet, right now it’s trading off a Fidelity account in one of my shell corps.”
“I don’t care, I’m sixty six and loaded, if she loses the whole thing it isn’t changing my lifestyle any. I just want to be a part of it.”
“I’ll send you the account detail, transfer funds, once the money shows up, we’ll keep track of your returns. We’ll send you updates once a week, when we go formal, you will be able to track the status from your computer.”
“Is it a stock, or like a managed account?”
“Like a hedge fund, we don’t want to go public, to many filings that drive up expenses for no reason that does us any good. If it works, we don’t need to raise money via a public offering, money will come to us.”
“I’ll get on it.”
We disconnect. Leon has earned maybe a hundred grand from my legal work, he’s fair, expensive, but fair considering the quality of his work. I don’t negotiate quality.
Natalie texts, ‘arrived suite is great thanks’
I pass along the lawyers name and phone number.
‘already ten should I call now’
'yes she wants to have breakfast before you head over to the child welfare whatever it is they call it in connecticut my guy wouldn’t recommend her if she was not top tier go with her recommendations she has your credentials i doubt this is a problem get rested or distract yourself with Zoe C she’s good at taking ones mind off things or at least keeping your mind on her’
“lol soon as I hang up thank you again chef’
She hangs up, Zoe C is definitely more enticing than talking to me on the phone.
Zoe C is in my head, ‘In a few Natalie won’t be capable of sentient thought, nite.’
Damn, how’s she do it?
Elle, “Chef, it’s seven, you getting hungry?”
Which translates she’s hungry, “Yeah, with all the excitement, I haven’t thought up dinner.”
She grins, “I have, we need to pick up the Chinese, everything is ordered, should be waiting when we arrive.”
“I’ll fetch, keep Zelda company, she’ll be concerned with Zoe C and Nat gone.”
Half hour later we’re parked on the couch watching a Netflix thing called The Fall, female detective and psycho serial killer, it’s quite good, so is the Peking Duck.
“With all the other stuff, I forget to tell you there’s another investor, half a mill being wired, I don’t know, maybe tonight, probably tomorrow.”
She brightens, “Who?”
“The lawyer I got to find an attorney in Connecticut. He’s rich, no small timer. Don’t worry, he’s a grown up and can take whatever happens. He buys in at whatever, we can give him a weekly report on his portion, I told him we aren’t going public, nor acting as typical money managers, more like a hedge fund without the stiff fees. Whatever the fund returns is his, we aren’t swiping off the top.”
“I hadn’t thought how to structure fees, what do you think?”
“One percent a year, maybe less as the fund grows, no twenty percent profit sharing, that’s just stupid. We make our money the same way the client does, one percent is admin expenses, keeping track of who bought in and the price they bought in at.”
“Good by me.”
It’s ten thirty, Zelda goes out for her bedtime pee, Elle and I clear up the Chinese and crank the dishwasher, Zelda comes in and after my obligatory pat she follows Elle to Zoe C’s room. I do going to bed things, then go to bed.
When I get up, offload my evening vodka and brush, I go to the kitchen, it’s seven thirty. Elle and Zelda are already on the patio, Elle is cross legged in meditation, Zelda is flopped on her tummy meditating on Elle.
Crank up the coffee, Zelda spots me and thumps inside, she sticks her snout in her bowl, it’s empty, she looks over at me.
“Good morning girl,” I get the giant bag of dog food and pour a generous pile into her bowl. Before I can get the half and half out, she’s emptied it and is over her water bowl emptying it.
“Go have your morning constitutional, I’ll make you a poached egg.”
She huffs, turns and goes outside past Elle, across the pool deck and up the hill. I pour myself a coffee and pull eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator.
I’m happily watching bacon sizzle, when it’s nice and crisp, lay the pieces out on a paper towel and put it in a warm oven. I start poaching, then put a couple of English muffins in the toaster.
I see Zelda come down, she stops next to Elle and pokes her in the chest, then comes in next to me to guard the eggs.
Elle, “Zelda thinks it’s time for me to eat.”
“She’s right, sit, we’ll eat at the island, it’s simple today, bacon, poached, English muffin.”
I put one cooled egg on a plate and set it on the floor, Zelda makes it disappear before I can get the other plates set. While she licks the plate scrapes across the floor, Elle and I eat.
Elle, “Heard from Natalie?”
“Last night. They are having, or had by now, breakfast with the lawyer, then over to see the child welfare people. I have no idea of the process or how long things take.”
Elle, “Seems like the sooner she’s taken out, the better. Any idea of what Natalie plans, I mean, well, she’s busy all week, travels frequently, sometimes over a weekend…an autistic child…”
“We’ll decide when we have more information.”


It’s near two our time when Natalie calls, five Eastern.
“That lady lawyer is good, and she’s known to the people, it was almost like the child welfare women we spoke to were waiting on her to tell them what to do. She played it well, said she was almost done with background checks, so far I’m spotless, but it plays better if she acts like she’s making a few more inquiries. We danced around about where the girl will live, I gave them my address, and said there would be twenty four hour care by qualified people in California. There are several schools that deal with autistic kids, I rattled off names. I also said my plan was to adopt. That made them happy.”
“Anything else?”
“Minor stuff, do I have other support in the area, Zoe C took care of that.”
“So you’re on the way.”
“So far so good, haven’t met the child yet.”
“No, they wouldn’t do that until the moment of truth, she how the girl reacts to you, how old is she?”
“Eight. According to them she’s functional, not one of the lost head banging kids, she is reclusive and has set routines. She has no friends, fusses when they try to get her to join group activities, Langford says that’s not unusual. She’s not violent, but can be stubborn, if she doesn’t want to do something she just turns away and shuts down. There are a couple of other….”
“Slow down, enough. If you decide to take her, she’s not getting parked anywhere but here. And I don’t want to know anything about what she will or won’t do. We won’t be interested in some social worker’s summation. I don’t want to be pre-biased. We get what we get.”
“Wait…now you slow down…are you saying you’re willing to have her live with you?”
“Unless you want to stick her in a school, then deal with pickup and delivery every day. We have room, we can make her far more comfortable and you don’t have to worry about schedules, holidays, any doc appointments, trips to the dentist. We have more hands here.”
It’s quiet, I hear a sniffle, “I’m such a big baby,’ sniffle, “how do I ever…”
“By never mentioning it, do what you need to do, keep me posted. If Zoe C is around, put her on.”
“Hey Chef, you made Natalie cry.”
“I volunteered us, you okay with that?”
“She can’t have my room, other than that, we have to help.”
The day passes, Elle and I walked the property with Zelda, skipped lunch, we had tea at four, didn’t talk about the girl.
Zoe C calls at five my time, “We met the child, late this afternoon. She’s a cutie, freckles, a small spray across her nose, rich auburn hair, they’ve cut it too short. Built like I was at eight, a stick. There was little response from the girl, but no drama either.”
“She have a name?”
“McKenzie, last name Matheson, don’t know what Nat plans if she adopts, change her last name or leave it alone.”
“What happens now?”
“Paperwork, Laura has been great, she knows exactly where to push and what to ignore. Mostly Nat and I just sit quietly, like we aren’t in the room.”
“Any time frame?”
“No, Laura didn’t push that, she said it’s not good to seem anxious to collect the girl and be gone. Let the bureaucrats stew, they have other kids to check up on, she says they’ll run out of things to ask and references to call. They’re going to call you as a reference.”
“I can definitely attest to her sexual prowess.”
“Probably not what they’re looking for, just run down the list of superlatives regarding her character so they can check off the box.”
“Will do, want to talk to Elle?”
I hand over the phone, tell Elle I’m out to pick up dinner, she waves acknowledgement, I do the simple thing, Popeye’s and coleslaw.
When I return, I slip the chicken in the oven, rinse most of the mayo off the slaw and stick it in the refrigerator. It’s only six thirty, we don’t eat until seven thirty or eight.
Elle, “Anything I need to do?”
“You fed Zelda?”
“Yep, and she’s been out, you saved her a piece of chicken?”
“Bought an extra thigh, she likes that,” I keep that one out of the oven, strip the meat from the bone and set it aside.
“We can keep going with The Fall later, or Blacklist.”
“Your choice, I’m good with either.”
We move outside with wine, the big girl flops between us, I reach down to give her a few strokes, scratch her head.
Elle, “How are you with the girl being here, I mean, I know you don’t know much yet.”
“I told Nat I didn’t want to know the name of her condition, I mean she’s autistic, but these days that covers a lot of ground, they have degrees and subcategories. I can’t help what other people do, but I don’t want to go in with some diagnostic bias. She just a little girl who sees the world differently than we do. For all I know, she’s got it right and we’re the ones in need of treatment.”
Elle giggles, “Well, we do have an interesting sideline that would call down all sorts of diagnoses.”
“Yeah, I don’t care about those either.”
“How do we treat…no, wrong question, we don’t know, at least I don’t know anything about it.”
“Good, I can’t stop you, but I’m not reading about autism, I’m not calling any specialists. If Natalie wants her in a special school, I go along.”
She nods, “Time for sustenance, stay here, I’ll bring things out.”
A second wine, we chomp crispy chicken and coleslaw, Zelda got her’s on a plate. She finished before we get our first bite chewed.
“Circle the property Zelda, then we go in and watch crazy people.”
Zelda hardly ever runs, a lope is about her top speed. At her size, she has a long lope.
Elle, “The baby has gotten huge.”
“I think one thirty is about it, not sure what she weighs in at right now, we won’t know until she visits the vet.”
“Zoe C keeps track of that, it’s six months for her next checkup as I recall.”
Elle uncrosses and re-crosses her legs, bare from the bottom of her t-shirt to her toes. So nice that the girls aren’t shy.
Put away the remains of dinner, load the washer, to the couch with a vodka to watch Blacklist.
Elle, “That’s an interesting show, a bit too much Agent Keen, she makes some horrible decisions for a trained FBI agent.”
“I suppose there has to be some personal drama along with chasing around or running from bad guys. Although I’m not sure why, there’s plenty to do to catch the perpetrators, like why introduce a duplicitous boyfriend, or is he the husband,  who makes Keen look like an idiot, I don’t know.”
We simultaneously yawn, laugh, “That speaks for itself,” I kiss Elle on the cheek, let Zelda out for a final run. When she returns, I close up and head off to bed. Zelda lumbers across the living area and up the steps to Zoe C’s room where Elle is. Then she’s down again, checking rooms, comes to my room and sits. She looks perplexed.
I stroke the massive head, “Zoe C and Nat are out of town, they’ll be home soon.”
A groan and a huff! Zelda likes her family in one spot, she turns and leaves, I hear her thump up the stairs again.

Fifty One

Morning, as I’m wrapping up brushing, my phone dings, I look at the screen, Zoe C.
“Good morning, what’s it there ten?”
“Yeah, quarter after. Flight at two, be in by four thirty or five your time.”
“We have a ward, eventually Nat will have a daughter. Between now and then, there are filings which Laura is handling. Her rep here is excellent, the reason things moved along.”
“How’s Natalie?”
“Like me, excited and scared. When they asked McKenzie how she would feel about moving to California, she pulled population statistics, major industries, the Governor’s name, biggest cities and all major sports teams including college teams. It was like she wrote the Wiki. Then she went back to rocking.”
“Yeah, when there’s nothing going on that captures her attention, she sits and rocks. Not quickly or out of control, just back and forth, staring at whatever it is she sees the rest of us don’t.”
“She ever flown before?”
“Nope, never been out of Stamford and not much of that.”
“Should she take something? To fly I mean?”
“Good question, I’ll ask, a Benadryl would probably keep her drowsy enough, but it isn’t my call, she’s only eight, I’d hesitate to give her anything.”
“Buy some but don’t mention it to them. If she does okay, then you wasted a few bucks on an antihistamine.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Talk to Natalie first.”
“Chef….duh, of course.”
“Okay, I’m not there to see and you both have a lot of things going on. Guess I’m over-thinking it.”
“You’re being you, we have Zelda and Chef, your girls feel ultra-protected. Here talk to Nat before she breaks my arm.”
“Hey Chef, looks like I’m going to be a mom.”
“Best thing for the girl, and you have help, aunts and uncles, just not blood, better, friends who care and will actually pitch in.”
“And I am so grateful, Zoe C has been super, always positive, and she’s fascinated by McKenzie, she told you about her California thing.”
I laugh, “Yeah, sounds as if McKenzie likes facts and statistics.”
“I’m going to ease into that, my job is finance and banking, Elle writes algorithms, it’s too early to tell, but so far she appears to respond to facts and numbers.”
“Find a video that explains how a jet works.”
“That’s genius, Zoe C, Chef says we should show McKenzie a video of how a plane works, the aerodynamics and stuff.”
I hear Zoe C in the background, “Perfect, let me find something.”
Natalie, “We need to go, I’ll call from the plane.”
We disconnect, I replay the conversation for Elle while we sip coffee on the patio.
“Now I’m excited, Aunt Elle, makes me feel responsible, at least partly.”
“We’re all responsible, guess we’ll also have to grow up.”
“Oh well, had to happen sooner or later.”
Elle takes a hike with Zelda, I check our website, uh oh, maybe I shouldn’t have, someone with a screen name of Tatiana is looking for help with a live-in boyfriend who is taking a hard-line with their foster daughter. One of those guys who believe that children need to be whipped into shape, literally, there’s a photo, it isn’t pretty.
Elle returns, “You have that look, been on the website?”
“Research Michael Olivares, wife Tansy, let me know what you find out. I’m gonna swim.”
I switch from sweats to trunks, go out and dive in, pump my way back and forth until I’ve had enough, climb out and rinse under the pool shower. Funny, Zelda usually hangs waiting on her shower massage but she’s nowhere in sight.
Elle comes out, the mastiff alongside, “Sheesh, a real charmer, already busted for child neglect two years ago. Mom appears to be a total idiot, at least she posted the problem to you.”
“Can’t tell if she posted it, it sounds like it, but it could also be a concerned neighbor or relative.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Nothing now, the girls are flying in with McKenzie, we can’t just drive up to Fresno, not until we have the girl settled.”
“No, first things first, but if you want, you and I can take off tomorrow and see what’s going on. At least it isn’t on the right coast, simple to get up to Fresno.”
“Okay, I’ll reply and let her know we’re looking into it, and ask her to complete the identification. Maybe she drops it, but until we get more data, address, cars, employment, we aren’t going up there.”
We diddle around, I fix a light lunch, then to the store and bring back a couple of roasted chickens, I have potatoes to bake, maybe mac and cheese for the girl, a stuffed artichoke we can heat and eat. Boxed brownies I make only to give me something to do.
Finally, it’s time, Natalie calls, “Sorry I didn’t call when we were in the air, we were occupied. Just touched down.”
“Elle is at the airport with the Hyundai, can you see?”
“Oh, yeah, there she is, see you in thirty or so.”
I pull apart the chickens, lay the pieces on a baking tray and put them in a warm oven, bake the mac and cheese and the artichoke. By the time I have the parts in order I hear Zelda huff and trot to the front door.
I follow, open the door, Zoe C, Natalie out with a totally adorable little girl, kind of sleepy but everyone’s kind of sleepy after a long flight. Zelda approaches, Natalie steps in front of McKenzie.
“No Nat, let Zelda acquaint herself, I stroke Zelda’s head, “Yūjin” Japanese for friend.
It isn’t necessary, Zelda ignores everyone and goes straight to the girl. She sniffs, McKenzie giggles and reaches for her, Natalie starts to put her hand out, to block Zelda.
“Let her go, she isn’t going to hurt the child.”
Zelda standing is eyeball to eyeball with McKenzie, she eases in and sniffs McKenzie’s neck and cheek, more giggles. The girl hugs her, she gets a giant lick up her neck and cheek, the girl giggles again. Then, as if she’s lived here all her life, she follows Zelda into the house.
Natalie, “Well I’ll be damned, she never so much as smiled until now.”
“I suspect our dog isn’t just our dog anymore.”
Natalie swipes a tear, “That is incredibly beautiful.”
We go inside, girls need a glass of wine, we park around the patio table. McKenzie is following Zelda up the hill, she turns and waits for the girl to catch up, then off they go again.
Natalie, “She’ll be safe?”
“Safer than with us. She’s in the bedroom next to Zoe C, Elle made it up, we can add whatever later when we see what McKenzie likes.”
Zoe C, “I’m famished, what’s in the oven?”
“Roast chicken warming in one, the other is mac and cheese, the basic kind, and a stuffed artichoke.”
Up from the lower part of the property, the part that faces the ocean, Zelda and McKenzie appear. She follows the beast into the house, we follow behind them. Zelda sticks her nose in her empty bowl.
Zoe C pats her, “McKenzie, this is Zelda, she’s hungry, are you hungry?”
No response, Zoe C gets the bag of food and pulls out a chunk, hands it to Zelda who takes it and swallows. I have no clue how she process the dry food without chewing or water. Zoe C hands a chunk to McKenzie. She takes the piece and sticks it under Zelda’s nose, she takes gently from the girl’s hand and crunches it up.
Zoe C pours the bowl full, strangely, Zelda doesn’t stick her snout in and vacuum it up. Instead, she looks at McKenzie. The girl sits next to the bowl and hand feeds her one piece at a time, with each bite she says, “Zelda.”
Natalie, “The Wonder Dog,” she dabs her eyes with a paper towel.
Elle, “Everyone take a spot, I’ll serve.”
Wine is poured, we do the artichoke first, Natalie takes two leaves and brings them to McKenzie. She slides the leaf through her teeth and puts the other to McKenzie’s lips. She sniffs it, opens her mouth, Natalie slips the piece in, holding the tail end. 
“Bite, easy not hard.”
She does, Natalie slides the leaf out, McKenzie hands Zelda another bit, “More.”
We watch Natalie feed the girl while the girl feeds Zelda. It’s quiet, we’re fascinated.
“McKenzie eats now,” she stands, kisses the dog on her head and comes to the dining table and sits.
Natalie puts pieces of breast on the plate, and a scoop of mac and cheese, tests it to see if it’s too warm, she stirs it around a little and spreads it out.
McKenzie picks up a fork and stabs a piece of chicken. Then she takes a second hunk, turns to Zelda and holds out the hunk. Zelda takes it and swallows, flops down next to the girl.
“McKenzie, Zelda gets only one bite of people food, too much is not healthy for her, understand?”
No response, but she doesn’t give Zelda any more. Instead, she works her way through her food, picks up the plate and holds it out.
Natalie, “Hungry girl,” more chicken and macaroni, another artichoke leaf.
She picks up the leaf, studies it, then slides it through her teeth, puts the leaf on her plate and eats the rest. Elle sets down a tumbler of ice water with lemon, McKenzie drinks it all.
“Thirsty too.”
I toast, “Welcome home McKenzie.”
“Welcome home McKenzie,” she repeats five times.
She stands, Natalie wipes her fingers and mouth with a warm washcloth. The girl goes to the couch and sits. Zelda goes to her big bed in front of the couch and lies on her side facing the girl. McKenzie slides off the couch and lays next to the dog, head on the mastiff’s chest. They both go to sleep.
Natalie, “Wow.”
“Ditto that.”

Fifty Two

McKenzie acclimates over the next few days, Zelda walks her twice a day, one afternoon the girls were in the pool, diving or doing laps. As is the custom, they are nude. If that means anything to the girl she doesn’t show it. Zelda trundles to the edge of the pool, by the steps she likes to sit on halfway into the water. Before she goes in, she turns, McKenzie is watching, Zelda huffs, goes to the girl circles around her back and nudges her towards the pool.’ McKenzie says to no one in particular, “Zelda pushes McKenzie,” she takes a step forward, Zelda pokes her again, another step until they are at the edge. The mastiff puts two big paws on the first step, turns to look at McKenzie, then takes another step down, her general landing spot is the fourth step.
McKenzie leans over and puts a tentative hand on the dog’s back, steps gingerly into the water, which only covers her little feet. Zelda goes to the third step, McKenzie follows. Finally, on the fourth, she sits. McKenzie just stands there, uncertain. Then she takes the third and fourth and sits next to Zelda. The water is at her chest, it barely reaches Zelda’s tummy. Swimming stops, Natalie swims over and sits on the other side of Zelda, scratches her head.
After a couple of minutes, Zelda eases down to the fifth step, McKenzie follows, her arm now over the dog’s back, she’d be up to her neck if she wasn’t hanging on.
Natalie eases down the steps, goes to McKenzie’s side and holds out her hands, McKenzie takes them and lets Nat pull her into the pool. Zelda watches while Nat pulls her slowly around the shallow part of the pool for a minute then returns her to the steps.
“You like the water? To swim?”
“McKenzie swims,” she hugs Zelda.
Enough challenge for today, the girls come out of the pool, Zelda backs up with the girl clinging to her until she feels the step, they climb out.
Natalie, “Very good McKenzie!”
“Water is h20, hydrogen peroxide is h2o2.”
Natalie, “What the….?”
“Maybe she’s into chemistry.”
Elle, “So cute, and she’ll get a chill.”
Natalie, “Come with me McKenzie, come on Zelda.”
The threesome go over to the pool shower. Natalie pulls off the girl’s t-shirt and shorts, then her tiny panties. She stands under the shower, McKenzie next to her.
After a good rinse, she soaps the girl’s hair and rinses it, then her own. When they step away to dry, Zelda gets under the shower.
McKenzie, “Zelda has a bath.”
Natalie hands her the shower wand, “Rinse her off, she likes the water, don’t squirt her face.”
Like she’s doing microsurgery, the girl goes carefully over the dog until Zelda rolls on her back.
“She wants you to massage her tummy,” Nat takes the hand with the wand and directs it to Zelda’s tummy, McKenzie giggles, how refreshing.
Elle, “There’s nothing wrong with that kid.”
Zoe C, “Zelda reassures her, she senses that the big girl would never let anything happen to her.”
Zelda rolls over shakes water everywhere, McKenzie, “Zelda gives McKenzie a bath.”
She’s still wrapped up in a big towel which catches most of the spray, Natalie wipes her face with another towel.
“Okay girl, time to get inside and dressed.”
McKenzie looks at Zelda, Natalie takes her hand and start to the girl’s room but she won’t move.
Natalie gets it, “Tell Zelda to come along.”
“Come along Zelda.”
Damned if the dog doesn’t follow along.
Zoe C, “What do you say to that?”
“I say I’m glad we have the dog.”
When they return, Nat has Zelda’s brush, she shows the girl how to comb her out.
After a few strokes, McKenzie says, “McKenzie will do it,” she takes the brush from Natalie and ever so gently brushes her massive pal.
Natalie, “Is it wine time, I need to slow down my head.”
I go in and pour, bring the glasses out, hand one to Nat, two on the table, Elle and Zoe C have showered and slipped on t-shirts, they sit and sip.
While McKenzie is engrossed in her project, we enjoy the cool of the evening and wonder what magic this is.
Elle, “What’s for dinner Chef?”
“Chicken Kiev, red potato mash, walnut apple salad.”
“Speaking of which, I need to get the chicken in the fryer, and the potatoes prepped.”
I go in, set my wine on the counter and pull out the prepared chicken ready for a quick fry then in the oven. First, the potatoes have been simmering in olive oil and garlic, I fry the chicken lightly, then it goes into the oven, frying to get a crispy coat, oven to finish cooking. The salad is easy, slice apples, skin on, feta cheese, balsamic vinegar, mustard, honey, red onion, romaine, walnut pieces. Flip it around, ready.
“Okay girls, salad’s up.”
They file in, sit, except McKenzie. I feel a presence at my side, look down, the auburn haired girl watching me deal with the chicken.
I pull over a stool from the island, pick her up and plop her on the seat. I put her salad on the counter with a fork.
“You can nibble this while we make Chicken Kiev.”
She stabs a piece of apple and munches, then fingers another, hands it down to Zelda.
“The chicken will need to get to one hundred sixty five degrees to be sure it’s cooked,” I show her the meat thermometer and the spot where it will read one sixty five. 
She takes another apple, plucks a walnut from the salad and eats, then my geography lesson, courtesy of McKenzie.
“Kiev is the capital city of Ukraine, bisected by the Dnieper River and known for its religious architecture, secular monuments and history museums. It is an important industrial, scientific, educational, and cultural centre of Eastern Europe. It is home to many high-tech industries, higher education institutions and world-famous historical landmarks. The city has an extensive infrastructure and highly developed system of public transport. Kiev, one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, passed through several stages of great prominence and relative obscurity. The city probably existed as a commercial centre as early as the 5th century. A Slavic settlement on the great trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople.
The population in July two thousand fifteen was two million eight hundred eighty seven thousand, nine hundred seventy four.”
She stabs romaine and onion, a piece of apple covered in feta.
“Thank you, I didn’t know any of that.”
No response, she’s fixed on my potatoes.
“You can mush them now, Just take the back of the spoon and gently smush them open about halfway, don’t touch the pan, it’s hot.” I do the first, hand her the spoon.
A deadly serious stretch of red potato smashing.
“Now we put them in this pan and get them nice and brown, every so often, give them a stir. I swipe the wooden spatula around to move the potatoes, hand it to her.
Elle, “Awwww, sooo sweet.”
McKenzie, “Not sweet, stir.”
I pull the chicken out, “Take the thermometer and stick it halfway in the chicken, like this, I poke one breast, pull the thermometer out, show her, see one forty five only, needs to go back in the oven.”
“One sixty five, Kiev not cooked until one sixty five.”
“Exactly, stir the potatoes one more time.”
She does, exactly one more time, I grin.
“Thank you,” I have dinner plates stacked, ten more minutes, take out the chicken, “here, you do it,” hand her the thermometer, I hold the pan still while she surgically inserts the probe.
She peers at the thermometer, “Kiev is one sixty eight, it should be one sixty five,” she looks up, not exactly at me, but in my general direction, blinks.
“Three more degrees doesn’t matter, it is cooked.”
I take the plates, put chicken, a serving spoon of potatoes on each.
“Take your place at the table,” I pick her up and set her down at her chair, pass the plates, pour a tart white in each glass, a wine glass of seltzer water for McKenzie.
“Bon appétit.”
McKenzie, “Bon appétit, good appetite.”
“You speak French McKenzie?”
“French, le français,” she has a bite of potato.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Je prends ça comme un oui.”
Elle giggles, “Such a smartie, good job McKenzie.”
McKenzie is absorbed in studying the chicken, poking it with her fork.
Natalie cuts the girl’s chicken in bite sized pieces, McKenzie spears a piece and tastes. No comment, no complaint either.
Zoe C, “Chef, this is wonderful, McKenzie’s potatoes are to die for.”
Zelda’s been good, no nosing around for treats, she parks next to McKenzie, who looks down, she takes a small piece of chicken and hands it to the monster mutt.
Surprising us she says, “No more Zelda.”
Zelda groans but lays down next to the girl’s chair.
“Dogs are family, but they want to know their place in the family, and they want to know what they can and cannot do. Zelda is smart, but she needs good nutrition, which is different from human nutrition. Meat is fine, but no sweets, they do not do well with sugar or chocolate.”
McKenzie says nothing, she usually says nothing, even if she’s asked a question. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t heard or doesn’t understand. We’re learning, she and Zelda are teaching us.
Dinner wraps, Elle clears and gets going on pots and pans, then rinses dishes and utensils, puts them in the washers. Zoe C and Natalie take McKenzie to the living area, we need to be cautious about what she watches, no extreme violence, no rape or even nudity. Obviously we aren’t prudes, but the child is only eight, and she remembers everything.
“Nat, can you come to the office?”
She looks at Zoe C, “Is this like going to the principal’s office?”
“Nope, he has business to discuss.”
We go to the office, I shut the door, “I need you to know something now that McKenzie is here. The reason I’m telling you will be obvious.”
“Fire away.”
I broad brush our outside activity, that we can’t tolerate abuse and far too many abusers get away with it for far too long. 
“I know we can’t fix the world, but we can fix what we know about.”
Natalie, “You’re assassins?”
“Not in the sense that someone pays us, not like a hitman, we research, we eat the expenses, I think of it more like vigilantes.”
“And all three of you have….”
“And now, with McKenzie, you have to explain that sometimes you travel and what happens to her?”
“Told you it would be obvious. What I propose, considering your job, is that only one of us will go research the situation. We confirm ourselves that there is abuse, we don’t take anyone’s word for it. It has to be persistent and egregious, not the slap or backhand out of anger or frustration. That’s its own problem, but it isn’t a death sentence problem.”
She blinks, “And you’re just getting around to this now?”
“My intent was to keep you away from it, what you don’t know can’t come back to bite you.”
“And I can’t testify to anything.”
“It will be hard for you to testify now, you don’t know where we’ll go, or who, or anything else. All there would be is this conversation. If you felt you had to try, if you find this completely freaky, then go for it. I’m telling you for the girl’s sake, I wish you could have been kept from it.”
“I suppose I should get hysterical and rant about not knowing the real you, and that you deceived me, at least by keeping me in the dark, like a trust issue. Fortunately for you, I understand the circumstances, and I believe you when you say you wanted me kept out of it for my own sake. That sounds exactly like you. Look, I need help with McKenzie, somebody that’s reliable and caring, not a paid employee that I know little about. I also have qualms, but not for what you might think. I don’t give a damn about some asshole, it’s that it sounds dangerous for you and the others.”
“We’re sneaky, and we don’t try to capture the target and chat. Once we’re sure he’s guilty, we find a quiet spot and complete our business. Business is a bad example, it isn’t a business like buy, sell, trade. I can’t even write off the expenses, it would mean producing paper, records.”
“Which would say where you were.”
“Not only that, we don’t travel in our real names, not cars, planes or hotels are in any name but a shell corporation domiciled elsewhere, not America. Nothing leads back to us.”
She stands, leans over and kisses me, “Every girl wants a killer boyfriend, I got mine, killer girlfriends too.”

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