Forty Nine

After serving us, Kota B stays close to the children, the eight little sprites the extended family absorbed. I don’t have to guess how, we got Mac, Zak, Mik and Akiko from ugly situations, Janah and Daphne didn’t get these kids from happy homes.
Emma B hosts us at the big table, two twelve seat tables pushed together, they appear to be black walnut, I ask and Daphne confirms.
“We had to have them custom made, so many people, and we thought two would be easier to move around than one giant table.”
“The wood is gorgeous,” I slide my hand along the surface, “it feels alive.”
She smiles, two rows of perfect teeth, “I thought the same thing, like it was talking to me, but then I realized Dasha was behind me talking to herself.”
I laugh, “Dasha is, charmer is the wrong word, but she is charming in her straightforward way.”
“When we had restaurants, Dasha ran them. No matter how she shot down all the men wanting a date, they loved her sassy rejection almost as much as if she’d accepted. Marriage proposals came fast and furious.”
“They didn’t know she is a le…, well, I don’t know that either.”
“We’re all lesbians, don’t know what the children will be. Actually Dasha would tell them directly, in her words, ‘I am lazebian girl, we do not make sex wiz men, go back to work and make money for family.’
“So they gave up?”
“Hah, not likely, it made her even more interesting.”
“Ah, of course, my life is interesting for the same reason.”
“You’re a lesbian?”
She’s so deadpan it takes me a few beats to figure out she’s having me on.
I grin, “To the extent my intimacy interest involves women, I’m lesbian.”
“A dubious definition of lesbian, but I take your point, welcome to the club.”
We take dessert by the pool, Emma B totes the cups from the kitchen, no missed steps, nothing slips and spills. They have the same kind of dishes, cups and glasses we do, acrylic. Nobody wants broken glass around the pool, or in the house for that matter, most of them go barefoot and there’s the dog to think of.
Eloise is to my left, she’s not chatty but I find she’ll answer questions, particularly since I’m asking about her hardware skills.
“The bots are almost human, at least in appearance and communication, must have been a challenge.”
She pushes her glasses up, tilts her head to look up at me, “I had help, Sloane worked with me, so did Katya. The software is from Daphne’s mom and Daria. As brilliant as they are, it took months to get the code written, almost a year, plus another year of fixing bugs. Once we got everything orderly, the bots’ AI did the rest.”
I blink, “Do I understand correctly, the bots are self teaching?”
“Almost entirely. They have access to the internet, even the dark net. They shut themselves down for a couple of hours from time to time, but otherwise they are collecting data, collating it and testing conclusions. While we’re asleep, they continue working. We have another bot like them, the first one actually. She was made to resemble Chloe Moretz, from her Kick Ass movie, a foul mouth wise ass twelve year old. Since we already have a human Chloe, we named our bot Grace B, which is her middle name. She’s the most fun.”
“She in storage? I didn’t see another bot, well, except the cleaning bots, they don’t have names do they?”
“No, only specific duties, they don’t talk. Grace B is in the workshop for a hardware upgrade, I figure a month, then she gets expanded capacity from new software plus a security upgrade.”
“You think they can be hacked?”
“Anything connected to the net can be hacked. It’s highly unlikely in the case of the bots, nobody knows we have them, hackers can’t hack the unknown.”
“Well, now we know, you only have my word for it, but we’re trustworthy.”
“You must be or none of you would have gotten past Janah. “ 
It’s getting clearer, Janah is the center, Janah collected or perhaps I should say attracted, the collection of girls and kids. She also reads people, probably auras like McKenzie, which tells her if there are ulterior motives or duplicity.
Here’s the thing, Janah is twenty five, so is Daphne, or at least they appear to be mid-twenties, certainly not older than. Excepting Nikko and Zi, most of the girls appear to be teens. And Amaya is a well known author of novels and screenplays, he looks like a teen, Chloe Sylk looks no older than eighteen. I saw Chloe’s first movie, Ultra Violet ten years ago, she looked the same then as now, she certainly wasn’t eight or nine. Both sets of twins can’t be over sixteen…same for the others until we get to the children.
The question is obvious, when did Janah and Daphne have the time?  How can Chloe look today as she did ten years ago? I foresee an interesting discussion at home tomorrow. 
Dinner is delicious, and the multitude of chatter around the table says the hosts and guests are having fun, getting to know each other, I even overhear what might be construed as flirting.
There’s a rush of little feet and the thump of big paws. Morshchiny plops next to the child they call Valeria. She’s not part of the eight children, a later addition as I understand it, and she’s a bit older, twelve I guess, while the children are six or seven up to eleven-ish, I’m guessing by appearance but I think I’m close enough..
Daphne, “Ah, the children have decided to dance for us.”
Eight girls in white, like a chemise but longer, knee length and barefoot.
They make a circle, slowly walk it, the pace picks up and every few steps they spin, arms out, head thrown back. Then singing, something in a language I don’t understand, the young girls’ voices crystal in the night. They stop, remain in a circle, the song’s tempo picks up, it’s like a chant. One spins clockwise, next to her counterclockwise, then all clockwise, they don’t miss a step, as if all of them were on spinning pedestals. Voices raise and lower together, no one voice overwhelms the others.
Then….then…beautiful and inexplicable…a jet of pure white light, concentrated sparkles shoot up from the center of the circle. The sound is like hissing, a broken steam pipe. The top blossoms like a beneficent mushroom cloud and the sparkles spill out sprinkling the children. Nobody freaks so I have to assume the thousands of bits of light aren’t hot. As the sparkles drift downward they form cocoons around each child, then as if on cue, start to spin around the girls until they glow, spinning so fast they appear not to be spinning at all.
Singing returns, the spinning sparkles rise up, reveal the child inside, then continue to roll up until there is nothing.
The children take off together, up the spiral stairs followed by Morshchiny, who acts as if she’s seen all this before. We’re so dumbstruck, there’s no time to even applaud.
I ask, “Can somebody at least try to explain?”
Daphne, “What you saw, the children call Zycyryn, which they got from the sound you heard, as if you repeated zycyrynzycyrynzycyryn over and over, maybe more like urgent whispering.
“That’s it, that’s exactly what it sounded like…and what are…what did you call them..it?”
“It’s spelled z-y-c-y-r-y-n, but pronounced zis-cer-en, packets of energy manifested as light, they talk to the children.”
“Talk? You mean in the whispering there is conversation?”
“Yes, sort of, the words go directly into their brains, one sided conversation, the girls don’t talk, they listen. Although Zycyryn can read their thoughts so there’s nothing to say.”
Elle, “Dang, like magic, but real magic, not tricks.”
Daphne, “Yep, fascinating isn’t it?”
“More than.”
“And, that’s just the simple part.”
Zoe C, “There’s more? More what?”
“They take the children on journeys, not like across the country, or even the planet, intergalactic journeys. They have seen other stars, their planets, the life on those planets…yes, there’s lots of life, and lots of it weird, but the kids love it.”
Natalie wipes tears, “Sorry, I’m the sentimental sap in our family.”
Janah, “You are the most sensitive, your family is better for it.”
Natalie dabs her eyes, grins, “How kind, thank you.”
Daphne, “Maybe kind, but also true. You feel deeply, particularly for the kids, but your adult housemates as well. Tuned into them, everyone needs that, your tears are for caring and compassion.”
Natalie giggles, “Can I get that in writing?”
We laugh, sentiment doesn’t hurt, good to smile about it. 
Zak, “I almost forgot with all the other stuff, look at Ocean’s drawing of Akiko,” he hands it to Zoe C.
She stares, pulls the paper up to her face, then stretches her arms out and turns it left and right, “My god.”
She holds the sheet up for us to see. It is a perfect rendering, so perfect that, somehow, when she shifts the angle of the drawing, a different perspective comes into view, as if we were looking at a real person turning this way and that.
Elle, “That’s not a drawing, it’s practically a video…how in hell…?”
Sloane, “Mystery of Oceane, sometimes she draws, sometimes it’s little dots that come together to make a picture.”
Natalie, “Where did she earn the technique, any instruction from Janah’s mom? She’s a uniquely talented artist, particularly for 3D art.”
Daphne, “They’ve talked, Kara demonstrated a few things, but the rest Oceane developed on her own, or with the help of her pencils and brushes.”
Elle, “Help from pencils and brushes, I mean I know she needs them, but how do they help apart from the obvious?”
Sloane, “The tools tell her what to draw where, what color to use, it’s a collaboration between Oceane and the paper and the pencils and brushes, oh, and Cassie.”
“Wait, what does Cassie do, is she involved in the drawing?”
“Yes and no, she doesn’t draw or paint anything herself, Oceane implies that Cass is helping, though how is unclear.”

Fifty

We say our thank yous, pile in the car and drive home, the ride quiet as we process what we’ve seen. A nightcap for the adults, the children are tired, meeting new people, talking all day, all of us digesting mind twisting experiences, perhaps mind opening is a better way to phrase it.
“Folks, Chef has seen enough strangeness for one day. If I dwell on what we saw I’ll be up half the night. Plenty of time to talk it through tomorrow. Good evening all.”
I take a hot shower, pile into bed and die to sentience. 
Zoe C wakes me, “Get moving big guy, there’s breakfast to make, here’s your first coffee, see you in the kitchen.”
Brush, flush, tamp down bed-head with warm water and comb it straight. Mac and Akiko are at the stove cracking eggs.
“What’s my job?”
McKenzie, “We will have French toast with maple syrup from Canada. Akiko, make some for Zoe C, Chef and us, the others will be along and we can do theirs’ then.”
French toast is simple, coat the bread in eggs, vanilla and a bit of milk, on the griddle, one side light brown, flip, finish, serve. Nutmeg available to sprinkle on top, add warm maple syrup. Breakfast for the inner child.
Zelda and Cilia get a slice, they don’t care about maple syrup and nutmeg, 
“Before the others get down, any thoughts on yesterday?”
Zoe C, “Yeah, how do I learn to levitate?”
McKenzie, “Even Janah doesn’t know how she does it. At first she thought it was Qi energy, but she said the energy it would take cannot just be from Cassandra, she would burn it up too quickly. Then she decided Cassandra has learned how to use it either more efficiently or she’s able to recharge while she’s using it. I am not able to do that, Janah said she was not either. It is possible Oceane helps in some way.”
“Oceane is, well… in her own world, one with no past, if she thinks about the future she doesn’t talk about it. She’s kind of the poster child for being in the present.”
McKenzie, “She sees the future sometimes, unless it affects the family in some direct way, she may not bring it up.”
The others come down, fix beverage of choice, the cooks create more French toast and serve.
Mickey, “What a day, is there anything they can’t do?”
“I don’t think they deal in limitation, they deal in possibility.”
Natalie, “Good way to put it Chef. I spent a little time with Britt and Lauren, they told me Janah tells them not to accept that a thing can or cannot be done, to find out.”
Elle, “Do they find out one way or the other?”
“I asked the same question, Britt said lots of stuff is either more complicated than they thought, used Eloise and the bots as an example. They overcame a sea of complication, you saw the result. Other times, an approach either doesn’t work, or the time and energy required don’t justify the pursuit, like memorizing Pi to a thousand decimal places. Impressive but what’s the point?”
Zoe C, “Zi told me that Janah, like McKenzie, can memorize anything instantly, but she usually doesn’t. She thinks it pointless. The temptation is to retain everything in her head, like some people hoard stuff at home with the illogic that they may need it one day. Google fixes the retention dilemma, whatever you need to know is on the net someplace.”
The kids excuse themselves, Zoe C and Ellie clear the table and clean up, I check the website. An inquiry from a country sheriff’s department in Nebraska.
‘I am Sheriff Jed Parker, Lancaster County Nebraska. We’re not huge, but my country population is just over three hundred thousand. I’m told that your people specialize in the unusual, even the bizarre. My direct, cell, number is 555-225-2606. If you get this, give me a call.”
I call, he answers, “Parker.”
“Hello Sheriff, I’m the contact you reached out to yesterday. Sorry for the delay, we were out all day. What’s going on?”
“Didn’t catch your name.”
“Didn’t give it, you can call me Jackson, what’s can we help with?”
“Don’t know if you can, it’s gonna sound weird.”
“We live weird, tell me.”
“Old people here been givin’ away stuff, mostly women, only one man. Not old clothes or dead husband’s fishin’ gear or tools, money, and lots of it.”
“Men are less likely to come forward and admit they were swindled. Let me hazard a guess, they have no idea why, don’t remember doing it, or to whom they gave it.”
“You seen this before then.”
“Oh yeah, when was the last complaint?”
“Yesterday, well, day before, yesterday was when I decided to message you. Talked to a buddy of mine in California, he sent me to your site.”
“Good, not that elders losing money is good, but it’s impossible to say if the person doing it is still in the area. These people move around.”
“Like the Travelers, live outta trailers, sell faulty tools, do bullshit roof repairs or fix cracked driveways that are only cheap cement, lasts for a week or so.”
“The Travelers look like saints compared to what you’ve got there now.”
“Sheesh, and the people expect I’m supposed to track him down with zero leads, none of the victims remembers jack, where am I supposed to go with that? Be nice if it was a Traveler camp, at least I could arrest somebody. My people stay alert to those types, we run ‘em off before there’s a problem. Now I feel like a bumbling rookie.”
“No police department in the world can deal with what you have. The FBI can’t deal with what you have.”
“But you can.”
“We can. I need your people to stay clear, their guns, body armor and SWAT can’t fix this, even if you manage to corner the guy. Cornering him would be the worst thing you can do.”
“My people are well trained.”
“Of course they are, but not against what you’re facing.”
“Come on what am I facing that can’t be dealt with?”
“Didn’t say it can’t be dealt with, I said your people can’t deal with it. That’s not a put down. Look, imagine a guy who can take your mind while you stand in front of him. He can get you to do anything, you are powerless to resist. If he tells one of your officers to shoot his partner, he’ll pull his weapon and kill him. If he told you to kill your mother, you’d draw and fire without a second thought.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Sheriff, I do, I’ve seen it done. If you do manage to corner this person, your people will be on the doorstep of hell, naked.”
“Hard to digest, but you come more than highly recommended, you come more like an avenging angel, can you help us?”
“Be there tomorrow. Send everything, every detail you have, every scrap. We do not release anything to the public, no media, no agency, nothing to anyone no matter how important they think they are. We do not meet the press, we do not have meetings with your people, we are invisible. When we have the problem solved, I’ll let you know and you take credit for solving it. I need one commitment from you, if any of your folks accidentally stumbles on us, for any reason, I call you, you tell them to back off, disappear, forget what they think they saw. They bitch, you tell them it’s ‘need to know’ and they don’t need to know. Agreed?”
“Hell Jackson, I’d agree to anything except murder to get this gone.”
“I’ll call when we arrive.”
“Need transportation? I mean me personally.”
“No, if we need to see you face to face I’ll let you know. You’re better off at arm’s length. I understand it’s your county, your responsibility, I respect that. But except for fresh data, like another elder getting robbed, or any other unusual circumstance, better for you to do your day to day like normal.”
“But what do I tell people? They’re on my ass already.”
“You tell them you have an ongoing and intensive investigation, you tell them that revealing details just screws that up, that you have active leads and are following every single one to the end.”
“I can do that. Before you jump off, how do these people, you say there are more, how do they learn it, or is it some genetic thing?”
“They look like people, they aren’t, they are shadows of humans, that’s our term, Shadows. You have one, and you definitely don’t want one. I’ll check in tomorrow.”
I click off, check in with Zoe C, ‘Flight to Lincoln Nebraska tomorrow morning. You, me, McKenzie and Akiko. Transportation, no hotel yet, we’ll get the lay of the land first.’
‘On it.’


Fifty One

Flight is good, LAX to Lincoln is under thirteen hundred air miles, not quite three hours, central time so we drop a couple hours and arrive at two. Zoe C likes full size SUVs, a Tahoe awaits us, toss luggage in the back, time to go Shadow hunting. I call Sheriff Parker.
“Jackson here, we’ve arrived, going to snoop around town. No bad news I hope.”
“Nothing reported, but you made a good point, men don’t like to admit they got shafted, you get the data okay?”
“Yes, thanks, You did a good job of gathering details. We’re going to the spots where victims remember being last, then where they remember coming out of it. It could be down the block or miles away but I don’t think the elders cover a lot of ground.”
Parker, “Naw, most of ‘em stay home, go to a bridge group, book club, church. These are not sophisticated people, not dummies, just plain folk. Husbands worked hard, kept to the straight and narrow, paid the mortgage, saved a few bucks. Then as casualties of life’s irony, dropped dead.”
“You have kids Sheriff?”
“Two boys, a fifteen year old who can throw a baseball through a brick wall, and a twenty year old who hasn’t met a drug he wouldn’t take.”
“Ahhh, sorry to hear it.”
“How it is. He’s my son, but I had to kick him out before he poisoned the younger one. Wife wasn’t happy about it until she saw the difference in our lives. No more missing money or property, rehab is a national joke. He went off, I think to Los Angeles, but he could be any damn place. I know I sound harsh, but I don’t care where he is as long as it isn’t here. How ‘bout you, kids?”
“Four, got two with me, the others are at home with the rest of the family. No problems, maybe because they don’t go to school. There are three other adults, one is with me, the other two are at home. They take care of the basic education, the kids pursue whatever their interest is.”
“Homeschooled, you religious?”
I laugh, “Not so much as a crucifix, no Bible, no Koran. We do very little direct education, they do more on their own. It may be because we don’t make them do anything, we don’t do education by making demands or taking measurements.”
“Sheesh, sounds dicey, how they gonna make a living? Every pissant company expects a college degree these days.”
“I’ve been lucky, none of the kids will ever need money.”
“Ah, understood, which is how you can fly around doing…what you do. But, hold on, you said two of the kids are with you. None of my business but you also said these…um…Shadows are dangerous, even deadly. You don’t put the kids in harm’s way do you?”
I laugh again, “Sheriff, the two girls put Shadows in harm’s way. No Shadow wants us to show up and confront, taking on the girls will be the last thing they ever do.”
“If I hadn’t got your contact info from a highly reliable source, I’d swear you’re jerking me around. He did say you do unusual work with unusual people, guess he was right.”
“I’ll check in later if there’s new information or no information.”
“Thanks, and good hunting,” we click off.
Zoe C, “This is where the first report came in, the spot where the woman remembers coming out of the fog.”
Strip mall, the usual, dry cleaner, styling salon…what used to be called a barber shop, donut shop which must be popular. I can see through the big window that the pickings are slim this time of day. Some sort of studio, maybe multi use, dance, yoga, martial arts.
“Okay, follow the most direct path to where they recall being before the fog rolled in.”
The spot is less than a mile and on the same street. And there’s a BofA on the corner, the one where she withdrew her money. So far, no rocket science. 
“She got her mind tapped, walked into the bank, made the withdrawal, and someplace between here and her wake-up by the strip mall, she gave him the money.”
“Not that it matters, but how much, did the report say?”
“Yeah, for all of them, this one was nine thousand which would require a manager to go to the vault, teller’s don’t keep that kind of cash in the drawer.”
“Nobody saw anyone with her?”
“Nope, he wouldn’t hang around inside. The cops did a fair job of interviewing bank employees, nothing useful. The manager said she told him she was buying a car for her niece, he had no reason to suspect anything.”
“What about the wake up point?”
“The bakery clerk knows her, she gets a bagel or muffin a few times a week, but the girl didn’t see her that day.”
“And she lives, what, three blocks away?”
“Yep, just north of the strip mall, small apartment complex it says here. I don’t see any reason to go there…what do you think McKenzie?”
“No leftover Shadow presence at the beginning, along the way or end. Take a look at the apartment complex anyway.”
Which we do, a smallish spot, eight apartments in a building that looks to be fifty years old, not a dump, just not new, painted in a less than inspiring olive green.
I look to Mac, she shrugs, there’s nothing, no traces. It isn’t surprising, this victim was the first report several weeks ago. Shadow residue, the smoky film, would have been long dissipated by now.
Zoe C, “Number two, across town, fortunately the town isn’t LA where across town is like forty miles of dense traffic.”
“This time it was in a home, the start is the finish. He got thirty thousand from a safe. The woman is seventy six, otherwise clear and active. She remembers the doorbell, then she remembers sitting in a chair in her living room about an hour later.”
“Give him plenty of time to search the place.”
McKenzie, “Janah and Daphne said a Shadow would not look for much but cash, maybe coins, gold, silver, nothing traceable. Janah said they have no interest in paintings, jewelry, or even expensive electronics, just cash or things quickly convertible to cash. Anything that can be bought at a store a Shadow makes the clerk believe she’s been paid, simply take off the RFID device if there is one, hand it over, he walks out setting off nothing.”
Zoe C, “Gee, I could walk in a high end jewelry store and walk out like a princess.”
McKenzie, “She also said they keep a low key lifestyle, drive used cars, plain clothes, nothing to make them stand out, few if any electronics, nothing trackable, common apartments, anyplace they can leave quickly.”
“They want invisibility.”
Zoe C, “This is the house, any reason to knock on the door?”
“No, the police reports are quite thorough, Parker’s people did a good job. If we talk to her, we become memorable and we have to concoct a story of why we’re looking into it. McKenzie, anything?”
“It was six weeks ago, too much time passed.”
Zoe C, “Number three was downtown, near University of Nebraska.”
“The victim was a professor, younger than the others, only sixty. She lives near campus and walks to classes most days. A psychology prof with a published textbook and a couple of other books in her field for more general consumption. One on child development was quite popular, sold a couple hundred thousand copies, she wasn’t poor. This was his biggest catch, the Shadow got a three hundred grand. The police report said she sold off a bit of farmland and the buyer paid cash. She put it in a safe in her house. Told the cops she was going to talk to a tax advisor before depositing it in her bank account. Probably bullshit, but that’s not our department.”
The school is a big part of Lincoln, as is the case with a lot of college towns, often one of the largest employers. Add the money twenty five thousand students spend on things besides tuition and board in a town of three hundred thousand is a fair economic impact.
Zoe C, “Big place, nice campus, where was the prof’s last memory before the Shadow?”
 I glance at the notes Parker provided, “Edge of the campus, east side.”
She cruises the street slowly, car behind us honks, too slowly for some people.
“Pull over, McKenzie and I will walk it, Akiko, take the passenger seat, lock the doors.”
We got about a third of the way before stopping, under a half mile to the end. The professor recalls waiting on a light to cross, headed to a restaurant three blocks from campus.
At the halfway mark, McKenzie stops and looks around, it’s a wide open area, Shadow residue has been blown away.
McKenzie, “I think a car pulled up, the Shadow asked directions, took her mind when she leaned in to answer him.”
“Sounds right, but you don’t know for sure?”
She shakes her head no.
I wave at Zoe C, signal for her to come down, Mac and I climb in the second row.
“You followed?”
Zoe C, “Yep, into a car and gone. Where’s the recovery spot?”
I read the notes, “Same place, but an hour later.”
“So he takes her home, she gives him the money, drops her where he got her. Where’s she live?”
“North, about a mile, we’re coming up on it, take a left here.”
Her place is what we might call a cottage, one story stucco, wood porch, as unremarkable as it gets.
“If we have the scenario right, I wonder why he bothered to take her back to the pickup spot. She’s not going to remember him or her handing over the money, seems like a pointless extra step for the Shadow. He left the first woman in her house.”
McKenzie, “He went to the house of victim number one in the first place, leaving her there is different from the number two scenario.”
“Duh me, of course, he’s leaving them where he found them.”
“How does he know they have money, cash money?”
“That is an unknown, and a quite good question.”
Zoe C, “What if, after he takes their mind, he asks about money. If there’s no cash, her releases them and moves on.”
“Must be it, another good call, you guys got game today, maybe I need more coffee.”
We stop and re-up the caffeine, Mac and Akiko have green tea, Zoe C drives to the fourth and last known encounter, this one a man, report says fifty four, self employed accountant. 
“Robert Williams, plain enough name, an accountant. He might be a wealth of information about who has money. Even if he’s not a tax guy, an accountant accounts for money, what came in what went out, then stuff like depreciation, amortization and financial statements. Let’s see, cops didn’t get much about the nature of his business, just an accountant. I guess even cops make assumptions, ordinary citizens think accountants mostly do tax returns for rich people.”
“What’s his story?”
“As I read it, looks like we may be on the right track. Our Robert Williams was in his office, back from lunch with a client, it’s around one thirty. He sits down and boots up his computer, then blank. A client shows up, sees Williams in a state of foggy confusion, calls 911. He rejoins consciousness around three thirty with no idea where the time went,  reported nothing missing.”
Zoe C, “Nothing missing he knows about. He no doubt has client records in there and he’s booted up and logged on. Even if he hadn’t logged on, the Shadow could make him do it. Now there’s lots of time to collect client files. You know, the Shadow could have found out about the first three from an accountant. We need to see if that’s a thread. Call Parker and get him to find out if the three women used the same accountant, or at least the same accounting firm.”
“Could it have been this accountant, what does the report say?”
I read the interview, “No, after EMTs were done, the cops who came called Parker because of the similarity, person blanks for a couple of hours. Detectives asked him if he recognized the others’ names, negative, he’s not the source of the first three, but he may be the source for future names.”
“Crap, that’s why the Shadow was there. How do we get him to cough up client names? It’s not like we can tell him a Shadow stole his mind long enough to raid his client list.”
McKenzie, “Akiko and I will get them.”

Fifty Two

A stellar idea, we just need to get Williams back in his office. I could break in and between Mac and Zoe C they could probably crack his computer. But it’s dicey and time consuming. Better for the girls to blank him again and we can take a look at personal tax records or LLCs he may do accounting for. The Shadow is going for cash, and an accountant’s records are an excellent guide to likely targets.
It’s pressing six, time to find a hotel, “You guys want to eat in a restaurant, or pickup takeout?”
Zoe C, “McKenzie isn’t fond of crowds and Akiko draws too much attention, white hair and violet eyes. Find Chinese, it holds up best for reheating.”
I find Mr. Hui and I can order online. Won Ton soup, Hot and Sour soup, two Triple Delight, shrimp, chicken and beef with snow peas broccoli and mushrooms,
one spicy chicken with tofu, jalapenos, peanuts and scallions. 
Before the food, we hit a supermarket for bottles of tea, soda, vodka and wine of course. Zoe C drops me off at the restaurant. I collect the order, by the time I return she’s booked us at Staybridge Suites, all the rooms come with full kitchen, real refrigerator, microwave pots, pans and utensils. 
We have two suites, one could easily sleep four, but I don’t like parking the kids on a fold out, nor do I like having one bathroom for four people. Girls deserve some privacy.
“I’ll prep the food, get settled in your room, we can heat and eat in my mine.”
I make myself a vodka rocks, one for Zoe C, open a bottle of sauvignon blanc. It seems like a long day, to the airport in LA, three hours of flying, driving around looking for clues to the Shadow. None of it strenuous, just wearing.
I click on the news, our style, let CNN play with no sound. At home we try not to spend much time in news of the world, it essentially repeats with different names.
​The girls come in, I hand Zoe C her drink, pour an inch of white in two glasses and fill with seltzer and ice for the kids.
Food’s heated, soup first, then the entrees. If my appetite is any sign, the girls are hungry, added bonus that both entrees are excellent, I see why the ratings are so good. We pretty much wipe it out, the only thing left is fried rice, we don’t rice much. I don’t even bother to stick it in the refrigerator. 
Pack up the boxes and stuff everything in the bags, I take it outside, find a dumpster and dump it. When I return the girls surfed movies, the first Equalizer movie is starting. We settle in to watch Denzel beat the crap out of bad guys.
Akiko is asleep before it ends, McKenzie is yawning. I carry Akiko, Zoe C gets them refreshed and settled, she comes back for a nightcap.
“Akiko did well, I mean she’s only bumping up on seven and we had an 
on-the-move day all day.”
Zoe C, “That girl radiates sweet, always a smile, Mac radiates serious, although I know she has affection, particularly regarding Akiko and Natalie, and Zelda of course.”
“She has affection for all of us, simply not in her nature to display it, her Asperger’s masks her emotions, but she has them. It’s why Natalie is all hugs and kisses with her. You notice Mac never refuses the affection.”
“What do we do tomorrow?”
“Find the accountant and let one of the girls connect to his brain. While he’s marinating in the dark, we collect client data. I hope he doesn’t have two hundred clients.”
“He’s a one horse show, he couldn’t handle two hundred clients, and we’re looking for the top twenty five percent wealth-wise.”
“How do we tell?”
“Income tax returns primarily, also billings, wealthier clients have more complex returns and pay more for his services.”
“Then what?”
“We split up, surveillance on the top two names…wait, that’s not good. We could sit around all day while he’s ripping off someone else on the list, perhaps more easily accessible. The Shadow controls the sequence of targets to a degree, other events, like one of them traveling, control the opportunity.”
“We need more sneakers on the ground, and Elle or Natalie don’t do us much good, plus they’re with Mickey and Zak…I know, let’s call Daphne. It’s ten here but only eight there.”
She gets on the phone, Janah answers, “It’s Zoe C, got a minute?”
She does, Zoe C outlines our dilemma, summing up, “We know there’s a Shadow, and we suspect who his next targets are, but we also suspect there may be more than we can stake out.”
Janah, “Sure, if you’re following a potential victim, you have to follow them everywhere since you can’t know when the Shadow will make his move. I think the logic is sound, the Shadow didn’t blank out the accountant for nothing, it takes energy to grab a mind and hold it. How about this, you can get a running start tomorrow, visit Williams, get what you need. If he comes in at nine, even ten, it’s only seven or eight here. Daphne and I will get a flight early, we can be in by ten your time, then we can get busy. Even better, since we don’t know how long the list is, Daria and Dasha will come with us. We get cars for each of us, we can follow six people. Think that’s enough, or should I bring along more troops?”
Zoe C, “Don’t know, the list may be four, or fourteen. Mac and Akiko can spot Shadows via the aura. How about your people?”
“The four of us can sense Shadows, we’ve been at it for a while.”
“I’m breathing a sigh of relief, trying to chase around potential victims could take forever.”
“And you want to be at home with your people, not parked in a hotel at night and driving around all day.”
“We’re on the same page,” she gives Janah the hotel location, “I’ll book rooms, ever used Staybridge?”
“Yep, reliable and lots of room, two suites will do it.”
“You going to arrange transportation for your girls?”
“Daphne or Dasha will take care of it, call you when we’re on the ground.”
I can see Zoe C’s shoulders drop, relieved that we stumbled onto Janah and her tribe. They have far more experience with Shadows than we do, if there’s some anomaly we’re unaware of, they can keep us from botching the confrontation.
“Feeling better now?”
Zoe C, “Sure am, another drink?”
“Yes, and I feel better too. This Shadow seems to be fairly mundane. Being robbed isn’t pleasant, particularly if you don’t know who did it or how it was done. So far at least he’s not causing physical injury or collecting young girls to abuse. On the other hand, he’s controlling victims for an extended period of time.”
“Which means he’s not a lightweight.”
“Talk to Natalie or Elle today?”
“Couple of texts, I gave them a vague update, Natalie called and talked to McKenzie. Said she told Akiko to take care of everyone. Nat didn’t expect a reply, still, it tells Akiko the folks at home are with her, thinking of her.”
We bid our goodnights, Zoe C off to her room with the kids, I take a hot shower, read for a bit then lights out.

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