Mrs. Epstein has soft scrambled eggs, fruit, hash browns, smoked salmon and black forest ham, crunchy stack of wheat toast. We go at it like refugees.
“Good to see young ladies who eat, not live on yogurt and popcorn,” she continues, “we have a situation, more child sellers I’m afraid, but one even more structured than the last in San Diego.”
Janah, “Sheesh, that was pretty organized, they even had a landscaping business for cover.”
“This one isn’t incorporated, but it is enclosed. I’m not an expert in Shadows, but this has the trappings, rigid controls, employees who have no other life, and, to cap it, everyone lives in the same place, bosses, children guards and delivery teams.”
Amaya, “Who controls all that? And how do they avoid getting caught? If the Society knows, why not just tell the DA?”
“Another reason we think it’s your Shadows. It’s set up as a religious order and school. There is a floor for girls, a floor for boys, women oversee girls, men oversee boys. There are separate floors for educational facilities, girls on one, boys another. It’s been inspected by local authorities. They get a clean bill of health. The Order, as it’s vaguely named, is completely self contained. The children appear healthy, the Order claims it’s a boarding school and the children are initiates in the order, no one has proven otherwise.”
Janah, “So whoever from the state went in to check it out got brainwashed in the process.”
“It appears so. From slim reports, it has the trappings of a religious order, unaffiliated with any brand name religion. These days, there are a lot of independent churches. The doctrine, as far as we can tell, is multicultural, a bit of Bible, Buddhism, Jain, Sikh. Different color robes, the leaders are purple, different colors for staff, the children in brilliant white.”
Janah, “Royalty to virginity.”
“We think so.”
“Why do you suspect it’s a child sex ring?”
“Rumor only. Aside from the few adults walking around in robes, there’s nothing but six to twelve year olds, a few girls may be thirteen or fourteen. That doesn’t make sense on the face of it. We started surveillance, it’s hard to get close, but they observed cars going in, then back to the airport. Satellite images gave us the rest. There’s a fair amount of traffic to one lonely monastery in the middle of nowhere.”
Janah, “Wait, transporting children in and out, or adults?”
“The customer comes to the product.”
“Has the Society interviewed any?”
“We had Social Workers interview two, thoroughly interview. We know they were there, we followed the cars bringing them back to their hotel.”
Thoroughly means they used drugs and other coercive techniques.
“And they claimed not to know what we were talking about, even under duress.”
The kind of physical and psychological interviews, refocusings, generally get direct answers. People are not built to hold out against our level of coercion. The Social Workers, that’s what we’re called, would not have planted answers in the questions, the questions would have been, ‘Where were you on such and such night, what happened exactly?’ Not ‘Did you have sex with a child,’ or even, ‘were children present? What did they do?’
Under the duress of a refocusing, if the target has answers, they will supply them. They did this time, but the answers were, ‘at a retreat, taking time off from my business, to find God.’
Mrs. Epstein, “They recalled specifically what they ate, where they drove to. They talked about peacefulness, quiet, a very happy meditative experience. How wonderful it was to be with the students. Nothing about sex. To them, they weren’t lying. That’s what they recalled.”
Janah, “Are there repeat customers? I mean, they went to have sex with kids, then leave thinking they had a spiritual experience.”
“Appears to be the case. If they repeat, it’s hard to say what drives them, their original pedophilia, or the implanted spiritual experience. We don’t know.”
“They must still have the urge for children, it gets blended into a sense of a spiritual activity. The dopamine’s all the same, plus the deletion of memories of sex keeps them from babbling about it to friends. I think participants may voluntarily have their memory deleted.”
“Good Lord! We hadn’t considered that. Of course, join a religion, go for a retreat, do your pedophile thing. Anything goes wrong, all you know is you went on a quiet retreat. They could charge damn near anything.”
“And if that’s how it works, then this is an extraordinarily powerful group, one not likely to be controlled by one person. The energy requirements are far too high for a single individual.”
“We need you to get in, find out what’s going on. Depending on what you uncover, we may not turn the kids over to the system.”
That makes sense, if the kids were being controlled, or if they know no other life, turning them over to the state would mean therapists, counselors and psychologists who have no idea how the kids had been coerced. They would assume threats or intimidation when, in fact, the children had never been threatened, just controlled.
“Where is it?”
“North and east of Albuquerque New Mexico near the Sandia Mountain range.”
“You are saying customers fly into Albuquerque, then are picked up at some point and driven to the, what?”
“The Order calls it a monastery. It’s not unusual for the area, the Sandia Mountains are considered sacred by some, there are a few real monasteries around, Catholic, one Buddhist. This place was built for the Order. It’s monastery-like, but it’s not old. It is six stories, off a dirt road over a mountain into a valley with no other access unless you hike a long way in the desert. There’s no sign, it is miles from the main roads. One reason it gets little scrutiny. Most locals don’t have any idea it exists. They have their own solar power, water from the mountains and a well. There’s a small farm, they grow vegetables, raise chickens. The kids do the work. We can’t get close enough to set up listening devices, access is the one narrow road and a guard twenty four seven. Cell service is non-existent, they have SAT phones and satellite internet.”
“How many kids?”
“Our own satellite photography shows twenty five to thirty. It’s hard to pick up females and males, they all wear the same clothes when they’re outside working, and when they are in robes, they’re all white. We estimate about seventy percent female.”
“Okay, twenty girls give or take a couple, the rest boys, How many staff?”
“We’ve seen as many as eight outside, the guards rotate. When we count colored robes, three purple robes, perhaps twelve to sixteen others, four of those are black, the rest in standard brown. We have no idea about the black and brown, some level of authority we assume.”
“Males and females?”
“Can’t tell, they’re hooded. The original state inspection referred to a man and a woman who escorted them around, they didn’t do a headcount. Even that was three years ago, nobody knows now. We suspect occupancy has grown. The place is big, if they dormitory the kids, they can park a lot of bodies. It’s private property originally owned by a widow, she and her husband had it for decades, deed is from nineteen twenty. She donated the land to the Order well over ten years ago, she lived in a retirement home then. The building was paid for in cash, no mortgage. It is not listed as a Foundation or 501C3, it is listed as a religious organization. They claim no income but donations.”
Janah, “Well planned and well financed, off anyone’s radar, tax deductible pedophilia. Pretty slick.”
Chan joins us at the apartment, Janah wants him on this trip. If the place isn’t overrun by Shadows, it’s got some other form of control and the sheer count of a dozen or more adults may be troublesome.
Tomorrow at noon we fly off to Albuquerque. We’ll do our own reconnaissance, the location of the site makes it difficult, Surveillance can’t sit on the side of a cliff with listening devices and video cameras.
We talk it over, whether to bring Chloe, decide it doesn’t make sense. In a situation like this, we might have to look out for her while looking out for ourselves. Her mind’s not ready for Shadows. Better this time to let her hang with Susan and Taylor, or get spoiled by the Epsteins. It’s Wednesday, she’s due back at the Murakami’s Monday and we prefer she continue training with as little interruption as possible.
Chan leaves for home, Amaya starts getting the gear lined up, the rest of us began packing travel and work clothes.
Chloe is delivered by Angelo, she pops into the apartment and sees all the stuff out, “Uh, oh, you guys are traveling soon.”
“Tomorrow at noon. You get to wheedle whatever you want out of Susan and Taylor, or Mrs. Epstein.”
“Too dangerous for me then Daphne.”
“Afraid so. We may not be back by Monday, and it’s best for you to continue with Hanshi. Soon enough, your skill in the sword and your Sensitivity perfected, you’ll be on the more difficult trips.”
Chloe, “You’re going to text me all day?”
“Amaya or I. Part of our work is not in cell phone range, if it’s quiet for a time, don’t worry. We’ll call on the sat phone when we can. Tomorrow night, you are going with Susan, Taylor and the Epsteins to Chef Villaume’s. You will be in something totally hot and the wait staff will be falling all over themselves to please you.”
She grins, “Think Susan will take me to Central Park on Saturday? I like to walk around and read people.”
“Ask her, I’m sure it’s fine, there’s nothing on the family website about them having plans for Saturday. ”
She gets a yes in thirty seconds and a note that they are going on a fashion shoot with Taylor tomorrow morning.
“This is working out great, except I want to be with you guys, too.”
“Honey, I don’t know the future. But if things go in the current direction, you will have tons of trips with us. Don’t regret one moment of being able to just hang with your family, enjoy life and be the center of the universe. The work isn’t pleasant.”
Amaya, “Just look at me. I was the center of the universe until you came along and look how amazing I am. I turn the center over to you because I am Daphne and she is me, so we need a new center, that is you.”
Chloe giggles, “You are total baloney, Amaya.”
“I am a diva, it comes with the designation.”
Chloe rolls her eyes at me, “I’m going to see Zi. I need to talk to people who don’t live in Wonderland.”
Amaya and I simulcast, “Off with her head!”
“Sheesh, you’re queens alright, drama queens.”
Still, she kisses us both, then goes off to find someone to have a sensible conversation with. Amaya and I resume packing.
Amaya, “I worry about her. She makes sense. I’m suspicious of people who make sense, that’s why I like you.”
“Well, she’s a Sensitive, they live in a world where they see people’s intent, which is frequently unrelated to their stated intent. It must be confusing when you’re young.”
“As opposed to us, we have to assume that whatever people claim they believe, it will frequently be contradicted by what they do.”
“Yes, she knows in advance what they will do, what they say is immaterial. We have to ignore what they say and wait to see what they do. She has an edge. Her edge can be helpful to us, but I don’t want her in danger until she has sufficient skills to protect herself. This work is tricky enough without sending her in unprepared. Soon, she’s not yet samurai, that will take years, but she is reasonably proficient. She can only really develop her skills by actual combat, banging around with bokken is not the same as facing a deadly opponent. She’ll be tested soon enough.”
“You will not allow her to be injured.”
“I can’t guaranteed that, she will be prepared, and like the rest of us, understand it’s part of the job. The top quarter inch of my ear is missing from an accidental gunshot, if it wasn’t for qi Nikko and I would be layers of scar tissue.”
Zi is occupied in meditation with Janah, instead, Chloe enlists Nikko for kendo. I hear them in the workout room banging away at each other.
Amaya and I enter and sit cross legged in a corner. We watch Chloe try, fruitlessly, to contend with Nishiko. I’m proud of her. She has no chance, she knows she has no chance, but she persists. Thirty minutes later, after her head has been removed for the hundredth time, they take off the headgear and bow. Nikko turns and goes to shower, there is no hug for Chloe, no ‘good job,’ or ‘you are improving.’ That isn’t Nishiko. Chloe is used to it, it’s not Hanshi Murakami either. A compliment consists of not whacking you upside the head too hard in practice. Sloppy technique gets a bell ringing blow, headgear notwithstanding. I have been so smacked many times.
Chloe sits, drinking a bottle of Evian, breathing hard, “Hanshi Nishiko is murder. If it was possible to remove a head with a bokken, I would be headless.”
“She pays you the ultimate compliment, no coddling.”
Chloe takes a deep breath, nods.
Pizza for dinner, lay around watching a forgettable something and go to bed. Chloe is on her back between Amaya and I. She’s finally starting to fill out. She’s never going to be anything but extra lean, but kendo and dance are developing muscle tone and curves. Hardly the death defying curves of Janah, Chloe’s muscles are long, her face narrow, puberty passed, more curve in her hips.
Chloe, “I’m almost as tall as you guys. What’s your guess, taller or not?”
Amaya, “Taller. You’re almost Daphne’s height now. Your hands are too big for your arms and your feet too long, you are either going to be a freak, or you will grow.”
I ask, “What do you think?”
“I don’t get a choice, if I did, it would be as tall as you, but if I stop here it’s fine. I’m taller than Janah, a lot taller than Ning or Lacy or Joan Wayne, our family dolls.”
Amaya, “Give Joan Wayne a strap-on, she is a GI Joe doll, not Barbie.”
Chloe, “Amaya making sex jokes?”
“What color are they?”
“Hot pink, sparkly.”
“Sleep, dear one.”
Chloe, “Kisses, lots of kisses.”
Amaya covers one side of her face, me the other, Chloe smiling her perfect teeth smile. Violet eyes shimmer. They say Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, I wouldn’t know, but Chloe is the happiest person.
Susan collects Chloe at nine, we leave for the Teterboro airport at ten. Blue Sky has us in Albuquerque by two, It’s a five hour, two hour time zone pickup. We drive to the Hotel Andaluz downtown. Janah, Nikko and Zi have the Penthouse Zsa Zsa, so named as the Gabor sister honeymooned in it with Conrad Hilton, who built the original hotel. Why a Gabor sister was in Albuquerque at all is unclear. Gossip update: The Gabors were the original famous for being famous women. Nobody ever figured out what they did exactly. People accuse Paris Hilton of that, but the fact is, she earns her own money peddling perfume, jewelry and clothes, takes nothing from mom and dad. The Gabors just married well, several times. Prostitution is legal if you call it marriage, a time honored tradition of trophy wives everywhere. We think prostitution should be legal period. It’s a financial transaction between consenting adults, what could be more capitalistic and free than that? American freedom is an oxymoron.
Amaya and I have a one bedroom suite named after old Conrad himself. Chan is in, appropriately, the Zen Den.
The rooms have familiar luxuries, refrigerators, upscale toiletries, crisp linens. We can easily gather in Janah’s room, it has a dining table that can seat ten and a guest bathroom. Both suites have double sinks in the bathroom, helpful with girl things. Janah’s room has a huge copper tub along with a separate steam-shower.
We’d had a catered lunch on the plane, nobody is hungry now, we unpack and organize. Our bad girl stuff, drugs and weapons, are in locked cases, don’t want housekeeping coming across katana, shuriken, a collection of strange serrated flick knives, gloves with titanium knuckles and pants with titanium knees. They might draw the correct conclusion that we’re here to hurt people.
We take a walk, Chan stays in his room to rearrange furniture with his mind or whatever. Up 2nd for a mile, cross over to Broadway and back down a mile and a half, then back to 2nd to the hotel. Good thing we just wanted exercise, this stretch of Santa Fe is otherwise forgettable.
Amaya, “Felt good to move around, what did we just see?”
“Kind of what I thought, good to know I did not miss anything.”
“I’m sure it picks up at night in spots. The University of New Mexico isn’t far, there are ads for clubs and entertainment in the book in our room. No reason to go to them, but it’s not totally dead.”
Zi, “How many people live here?”
Janah, “The population is near nine hundred thousand, it isn’t Manhattan, but it isn’t tiny. Plenty enough to do, we walked boring streets, we didn’t walk all the streets.”
“There aren’t any boring streets in Manhattan.”
Nikko, “Not that you’re biased.”
“Not at all, just observant.”
Janah, “I’m cleaning up, perhaps a glass of champagne, then dinner. Room service or dining room?”
Zi, “Seems a shame to waste such a lovely suite, big table over there.”
That’s the consensus, we order in, although Amaya thinks it scandalous that the hotel guests are missing an opportunity to see her. She and I go to our room, not quite Janah’s, but a very nice suite, king bed, comfortable sitting room. I concoct Amaya’s preferred vodka rocks, dash of Angostura. While she enjoys her cocktail, we sit on the couch and marinate, eventually we must move, so we shower and play fondle the girl with soap and shampoo.
Amaya, “You wish to kiss me under the warm water.”
Amazing insight, but then I always want to kiss her, anyplace under any circumstances. We dry, refresh her drink while the hair dryer screams, back on the couch, free of the encumbrances of textiles.
Janah, “Would you order dinner? I asked the others, whatever you choose will be fine. I’d do it myself, but I’m busy being toyed with by four soft hands and mine are occupied with my champagne glass.”
“We’re looking over the menu now.”
Janah, “I can see what you’re looking over, it isn’t the menu. Amaya is looking over the menu.”
“She is me, same thing.”
Janah, “I’d think you’d lost it if you were watching anything else given her absence of designer threads, or any other threads.”
“It is joy to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. It’s a Buddhist thing.”
Janah, “Rationalization works for me….ooh, Zi is sooo bad. Gotta go.”
Amaya, “Janah getting diddled?”
Amaya smiles, my hormones engage, she puts a long finger in my mouth, pulls it out and puts it in hers. It’s the little things.
We order, dress and join Janah and the others. Everyone is appropriate, Chan is here and we can’t have the room services folks losing their minds. After they arrange the table, I sign, gratuity is included, I add two twenties in cash, they seem happy.
We settle in to Spanish antipasto, sautéed asparagus, a pistachio crusted vegetarian steak for Janah, sea bass, scallops and beef filets.
For dessert, flan seemed appropriate, orange caramel chocolate and/or chocolate dream cake, three of each. Everyone samples both, we persist sampling until there’s nothing.
Janah, “Wasn’t there a lot of food a little while ago?”
Nikko, “There was a lot of food an hour and a half ago.”
We’d taken our time, the staff had thoughtfully brought along warmers so warm things stayed warm. It was all quite good. If you’re ever in Albuquerque, try the Hotel Andaluz or at least try Lucia for dinner.
Janah, “Breakfast in the hotel at eight, then drive to the site.”
Chan excuses himself, I call room service for a pickup and in less than ten minutes the place is spotless. Good hotels are good for a reason.
Amaya and I spread kisses around, then back to our place. After brushing and assorted bathroom prep, I deconstruct her and put her things away, do myself and we return to the couch, turn off the lights and don’t watch a movie. We finish not watching it in bed. We do watch each other closely, visit and revisit the sensitive spots.
After a long lovemaking session, we merge to supreme sublime. We are still in each other when we awake. I’d never had a merging last an entire night. Wow. Amaya must have enjoyed it, she’s in a smiley haze.
Breakfast is a variety of Andaluz Omelets, which includes several fillings, so it can be vegetarian or carnivore. We do various veg mixtures. The bacon eaters like it really crisp and it gets too mushy in an omelet. Three orders of crispy bacon on the side, wheat and sourdough toast.
Pack up the Escalade, vehicle of choice. Amaya is familiar with the controls and handling and even with six, even with Chan as one of the six, it’s got room for equipment. This one has all wheel drive and oversized tires, excellent ground clearance.
Chan is shorter than me, maybe five nine in boots, bumping five eight in bare feet. Except, unlike us, he’s about half as wide and thick as he is tall. Okay, it’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Essentially he resembles a refrigerator with arms. His head sits on his neck, impossible to tell where neck ends and head begins. His arms aren’t shaped muscular, think of steel beams they use to hold up big buildings, with two cast iron skillets on the ends.
He says he feels pain, but in all the years I’ve watched him spar or fight in our work, I’ve yet to see him show it. When Nikko and I practice with him, it’s as much fun as kicking a fireplug, our shins are bruised, our hands and knuckles are bruised. I think I might have given him a small knot on his shoulder one time with a hard down kick. I do recall my foot hurting. I’m hypothesizing the knot. There was no actual evidence.
When he used to work with weights, he could bench press five hundred pounds, more than once, I don’t think he ever maxed a squat, he ran out of bar to add weight. Since the completion of his qi training, weights are superfluous. He spends time on flexibility instead. First refrigerator I’ve ever seen that can do a full split, sideways or front to back. In our practice, he throws Nikko and I around like Frisbees, sometimes both at once. I’ve never seen him sweat or even breath hard.
Thirty miles out of Albuquerque, we come to a branch road, another five miles then a dirt road that angles up the mountain. The road is satellite monitored by the Society. We don’t want to be going up when someone is coming down, there’s nobody to come down except people from the Order. Halfway up, we find a spot to pull off, take our surveillance gear, which isn’t much, binoculars, two SAT phones, a listening device it may not be possible to use. The phones are so the Society can call us if a car leaves the compound and for the others to communicate with Amaya.
We’re in hiking gear, our cover if we get outed. Boots, loose brown pants and shirts, backpacks with water and granola, hats and sunglasses. Amaya and Chan stay with the car. Amaya backs in a spot out of sight of the road from either above or below.
The four of us start up the mountain.
Another half mile of mostly gentle slope, then a quarter of steep. Just below the crest, I inch closer, peer over the top. The building is near a quarter mile away, the ground wide open in between. Listening device is useless at this range, even with my owl ears magnifying it’s amplified signal. I ease back down.
“Janah, we can’t do this during the day, there’s zip for ground cover, no reasonable access from the other side and if there were, the mountain behind the place is higher and steeper, practically a cliff, and it curves around. They have a fortress on three sides, in front is the farm. There are people working, we’d be wide open.”
“So I saw, okay, we were expecting that from the satellite photos. Go back up, start downloading a much as you can get to me. Work your way left and right, get different angles. With your eyesight, Nikko and I should be able to get plenty of detail, then sweep with the binoculars, between the two we may be able to count the stitches in their robes.”
While I’m playing human video cam, the SAT phone blinks, Janah clicks on, it’s Surveillance, “Car approaching, just turned off the main road, ETA ten minutes.”
Janah, “You heard?”
“I’m mentaling Amaya to stay low and out of sight until it passes. If they accidentally spot the car, she’ll tell the cover story, or Chan will deal.”
Janah, “Nikko, you and Zi find cover, we’ll spread out and stay down until the car is over the crest. I’m heading towards Daphne, she has a spot to burrow down.”
Nikko taps Zi, motions to follow, they do a hands and knees for thirty yards until Nikko spots a crevice behind a boulder facing the downside of the hill.
Zi crawls in, Nikko next, she can’t see the road, which means they can’t see her. We wait.
Amaya, “Car rolled past, no hesitation.”
“I hear it, we’re dug in.”
A couple of minutes pass, I hear it slowly approach, it’s a narrow road and a steep hill. It doesn’t stop, just a slow crawl over the crest. From there, the slope is steep but gentles down in fifty yards. I hear the engine quit whining and return to normal.
I climb to the crest. Watch the car, read the license, now filed in Janah’s head. All I’m waiting for is for the driver and passenger to exit. The car pulls up to the main building.
The driver gets out, plain clothes, slacks sandals, linen shirt. He moves to the passenger side, opens the door and helps the passenger out.
Janah, “He’s wearing a hood. Not a monk’s hood, his whole head is covered. They don’t want the customer to know where he is. Probably covered since they left Albuquerque.”
The driver walks the passenger to the front door, it’s opened from the inside, I can’t see by whom. He disappears and the door closes.
A few children run to one of the adults, it’s clear they’re asking questions. The adult nods then points back to the fields, the children return to their work. Today it looks like weeding, they aren’t picking produce on that side. Others are gathering potatoes and squash, something leafy green in another plot.
“And all this time I thought it grew in the produce aisle at Whole Foods. Who knew?”
Nikko, “Are you two finished screwing around, enough dirt.”
Janah, “Let’s get back to the car.”
Back at the hotel, all shined up after showers, it’s nearly three thirty. Tonight we sleep on things and see if anyone has a brilliant overnight insight.
Amaya, “We have until six, you may curl up with me and enjoy my presence.”
She doesn’t have to add ‘if I wished,’ she’s simply responding to what I was already thinking.
We do, it isn’t sleep, it isn’t sex, it’s being together quietly for an hour, then we merge again for a luscious hour and reluctantly demerge.
Amaya, “It never loses the wonder and joy, does it?”
“Janah and I have been at it for years, not so far, every time is like the first time and better.”
I'd been texting Chloe a few times a day. The shoot with Taylor had been fun, Taylor's agency took one look at the gangly Chloe and wanted to sign her. She gave me a short recap of dinner at Villaume's, she had escargot for the first time, her decision is 'chewy.'
I'm a lukewarm snail fan. I think people like it because it sounds neat, ess-car-go, and it's drowned in garlic and butter. You would eat rat testicles with enough garlic and butter, particularly if they were on the menu in French, testicules de rats.
I talk to Chan about the modeling, he relays the message to Ning. I mention it to the others, nobody sees much to object to. Chloe's only relatives are dead, she's five years older, taller and far away from the place where almost no one had ever seen her. It is a stretch to think that anyone in the farm community would connect a girl they barely knew existed with a shot in a fashion magazine years later. For Amaya, it was different when she was Chloe's age. A lot of people had photos and video of her when she was young, and a girl with her striking looks might be easily recognized as the one who used to have a preteen modeling website. Amaya doesn't need the aggravation, she certainly doesn't need the money and she'd spent hours in front of cameras, changing clothes and redoing hair and makeup. Chloe won't need the money either, but her circumstances are different and she’s excited about the opportunity.
Taylor said that by the time they finish with hairstyles and makeup, she wouldn't look like her every day self. The only feature that couldn't change were her violet eyes. Part of the attraction for the camera are those eyes. Besides, Ning has legitimate adoption papers and a birth certificate from a completely different part of the country. It’s settled that Chloe could work with Taylor along to supervise.
A little happy distraction while we plot how to take the fake monastery and remove Shadows.