Sixty One

Tea time, Hypatia B makes an appearance before we sit, Emma B gives us a brief bio of the real Hypatia, skips the gruesome death. Our newest bot makes the rounds during tea.
She’s with Janah and me at the moment, “I was delighted to discover there is no superstition or religion in my new home.”
“I’m Buddhist, not an exemplary one, but in general. Primarily because of my Shaolin training.”
Hypatia B, “Yes a warrior class of Buddhists, although my program tells me there are mystics, ones you call Sensitives that can read intent and sense human presence they cannot see, and Contemplatives, who are scholars, much like myself. There is no God involved.”
“No, we don’t do God, either in Shaolin or in our family.”
“You have a large one, I find myself surrounded by unique women at every turn. My instructions are clear, I am to work with Oceane and Cassie, to observe and protect, otherwise help with the children.”
“Oceane gets distracted and decides to wander off. They can’t really get out of the compound, well, except that Cassandra can levitate. In theory she could just float away, but she doesn’t get out of sight of Oceane. We still monitor their whereabouts twenty four hours a day.
'Yes, I have that programming.”
Janah, “I want you to become intimately familiar with them, to see if you can get underneath what goes on in their minds. Cassie doesn’t talk, Oceane does barely.”
“It will be my challenge. I know Oceane sees visions of the future, and her predictions have come to fruition, it is not just luck or coincidence. She also has a unique relationship with water of all kinds, the pool, the sea, rivers the creatures who live in water. You know, of course, that quantum theory suggests that space-time is like a river, everything is continuous, the past is there, the future is there as well, humans only see the snippet of space-time they live in and are conscious of.”
Janah, “Yes, and it may be possible to see the future, but much harder to go back in time due to entropy.”
Hypatia B smiles, “You have done extensive study. My program tells me you are always researching something, may I send you things I find of interest, or that I think you may?”
“Of course, thank you, anything you find.”
“Over time, I will learn what interests you and what to skip, just click the one to five notation I will include on the page, one means not your thing, five means send anything related.”
Janah, “Excellent, you could save me a lot of search. I’ll kick back things to you I find worthwhile as well.”
Hypatia B wanders off to another group, Nikko, Zi, both sets of twins.
“I need to get, no, I don’t, we’re doing order in pizza, dang, I don’t need to do jack,” Grace B and Emma B are collecting cups, Kota B is clearing up after the children. 
“How privileged we are, no laundry or housekeeping.”
Janah, “You wouldn’t have time with all the cooking. When I’m feeling meditative I still fold clothes, nice and warm from the dryer, and there’s laundry every day.”
“We could have the bots do more food prep, but then we lose the time together, Dasha, Ellen, Valeria and I shuffling pots and pans, slice, dice, taste, stir, simmer, bake, philosophize.”
“And flirt.”
“And that.”

Susan and entourage show up just before six thirty, she introduces Felicia around until she comes to the children, Morshchiny is stock still in front of them facing Felicia.
I turn to the mastiff, “Droog Morshchiny,” she steps to Felicia and sniffs her hands.
Felicia, “That is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen, I suppose I passed the sniff test.”
“She’s captured your pheromones, I gave her the friend command, next time she will know you’re okay to be around the children.”
“What happens if someone isn’t okay?”
“She stays between them and the kids, if they try to get past, she stops them.”
“What if it’s more than one person, like, I don’t know, kidnappers?”
“Kota B stops the ones Morshchiny doesn’t get to.”
“Ah, Taylor told me a little about your robots, Susan has one, it looks exactly like you, and Kara’s looks like Janah.”
“It’s their revenge, they get to boss around our avatars since they never bossed us around.”
Felicia grins, “They don’t boss around anyone, not that I’ve ever seen. I’ve only been up a few times though. I’m dying to see your house, is that too nosy?”
“Amaya will supply you with a beverage, then Taylor and I will take you around.”
At the bar, Taylor kisses Amaya, they’re occasional play buddies and even had a small business together when we were in Manhattan.
Janah, “You’re thinking what I’m thinking.”
“Felicia’s primo, we’d do her yesterday and again today, but the way she’s chatting up Amaya, it may take a while for our number to come up on her dance card.”

Janah, “We only know primo girls.”
She’s got me there, it’s true.
Taylor with a vodka, Felicia with a Coke Zero, we do a short tour of downstairs, five bedrooms, the office, kitchen, the extension with the workout area and three additional, currently unused, bedrooms. Then up the newest circular staircase, the children’s dorm, the work shop and nine more bedrooms.
Felicia, “Gee, the bedrooms are bigger than my apartment, individualized and one more gorgeous than the next. Who’s your decorator?”
Taylor, “Amaya did all the interiors, and the interiors at Susan’s and Kara’s. Kara’s art is on a few walls, Oceane did a few, Lacy did a few. Two of the children are quite good, they are doing murals in the new wing. Nikko and Daria did most of the layout and construction design, with input from Daphne and Dasha about the kitchen. As you saw, it’s a commercial operation, they cook for thirty girls.”
Felicia, “Wow.”
“Except tonight, it’s pizza, we take an occasional night off, but with four chefs, it isn’t so bad. The bots do all the inventory, serving and clean up.”
Felicia, “We do fashion shots at upscale homes in LA occasionally, none of them are close to this. Oh, so you know, we have to sign non-disclosure agreements when we do those locations, it isn’t unusual. I completely understand, I’ve been stalked a couple of times, it’s an ugly, creepy feeling, and you have small children to protect.”
“Yes, and we do. For yourself, at least when you’re inside the wall, your safety is assured anyplace in the compound. Let’s go see how the others are doing with our new bot.”
As we approach the pool area, there are screeches of laughter, I ask Britt what’s so funny.
“Hypatia B is telling stories of ancient Greece, particularly the foibles of the aristocracy and the fondness of the philosophers and senators for little boys. Susan said it’s a wonder they got around to making babies. Hypatia B explained that most of the children were not fathered by the husband, rather by soldiers and slaves. She said much of Greece was populated by bastard sons and daughters, who then married each other when they were thirteen and fourteen.”
Pizza arrives via drone, the bots haul them inside where the ovens wait to warm and crisp the crusts, girls have a second drink while they anticipate. Kota B serves the children and, of course, Morshchiny comes along for her chunk, I cut a bite sized triangle off the end of a slice, make sure it isn’t hot and slip it to her. She thunks her snout against my leg in appreciation, thumps over to the children’s table and parks in her spot.
Ellen, “Ready to serve.”
We slide half the pizzas onto wooden cutting boards, one cross slice then an X to make six pieces, girls come along to make their selections. Some stay at the table, others spread around the living area or out by the pool. The bots, armed with bottles of Chianti, fill wine glasses. After serving, Hypatia parks next to Oceane, I see conversation, at least between Oceane and Hypatia, Cassie smiles, shares a slice and glass of wine with Oceane.
I slide in next to mom, “Pizza’s good isn’t it?”
Susan, “We get Fratelli regularly, there aren’t chefs on my side of the compound, there is prepared food delivery. Taylor and Lacy heat, we eat.”
“How’s Felicia been? Getting to know her?”
“She’s sweet, likes Taylor being all over her. Lacy and I are ten years older than Taylor, I think it’s fair for her to have a younger pal. She certainly is lovely to look at, big grey-blue eyes, shiny copper hair, lips to lose yourself in.”
“Lose yourself yet?”
“Nope, she’s beautiful but not on my intimacy radar. I noticed she warmed to Amaya.”
“Amaya heats up the dead.”
Susan laughs, “True that. I’d hate Chloe, sleeping with Amaya most nights, but Chloe is impossible to hate. She resembles Felicia vaguely, Chloe-ish without the freckles.”
“She also not six feet tall, but lanky lissome like Vesnushki.”
“They still call Chloe freckles?”
“Only in Russian, it’s an endearment Chloe loves. When Amaya calls her Vesnushki, it means Chloe is going to get lucky.”
“And Amaya says it’s she who is lucky.”
“Yes, but only Chloe, the rest of us are required to consider ourselves fortunate when she favors us with her favors. Oceane is perhaps her second exception. Amaya never talks of Oceane in anything but rapturous tones, even when she calls her a weirdo.”
Susan, “I’m willing to wager that Taylor and Felicia wind up worshiping Amaya’s virtues soon, even tonight.”
“You may be onto them, which means I can invite Chloe to join Janah and I for girl follies later, this may work out splendidly.”
I see mom eyeballing Sloane, she abandons me and heads over, whispers in Sloane’s ear. I see her smile and nod. Whether they made plans for this evening or later in the week, I can’t say, but mommy is going to take advantage of Sloane’s boy part in the near future.
Sis moves to Lacy, whispers in her ear, comes back over to me, “Sloane is going to walk Lacy and I home later, I’ll return her to you tomorrow…sometime.”
I see Lacy with an idiot grin on her face, like the one I get when Oceane cocks her head in silent invitation. It’s her technique, when she spots a target of interest, she stares, catches the girl’s attention and then cocks her head ever so slightly with a gentle smile. You have to act immediately, wait five minutes and the stunning sylph’s forgotten all about it.

Sixty Two

A month slides by without us traveling someplace to kill a Shadow or refocus an abuser. Felicia has become a regular at Casa Sis, staying over on weekends. Modeling keeps her occupied during the week, but she pilots her electric scooter up on Friday afternoon and returns to her apartment in LA on Monday. They come over for dinner Saturday, or Sunday brunch, otherwise they keep to themselves. 
Mom says she’s been good about family details, as in not asking about why we wound up with so many girls. She’s being tested, if she can resist probing into our lives, over time Sis or Taylor may reveal a bit more. So far, she’s happy to be included, happy with Taylor and the easy camaraderie.
So far, Cassie hasn’t levitated when Felicia is around, sensing that the girl is not family, rather a guest that comes and goes. One that might talk to other people about what she’d seen and stir up unwanted curiosity about us despite a confidentiality agreement. 
Janah pops in my head, “Office.” 
I show up, slide the door closed behind me and settle into a chair across from her, “A project?”
Janah, “Grace B brought an anomaly to my attention. It’s a bigger version of the disappeared families in Nebraska. That was a Shadow operation trying to draw us out.”
“Which they did, to their demise.”
“Yes, that was in one location in and around Alliance. This doesn’t involve entire families, but it’s nationwide. Well, twelve states so far, but coast to coast and in between.”
“Who’s being taken?”
“Who’s always taken?”
“Kids. And in this case, no ransom demand, no contact, like they evaporated.”
“Exactly, you read my mind.”
“I did.”
Janah, “Grace B, all the bots together really, are constantly searching for anomalies, mystery crimes, behavior that makes no sense, primarily looking for Shadows. In the course of reviewing missing children, she came across twelve kids in twelve states, just gone, no domestic problem, no adoptees in search of birth mommy, no insane nanny or weird uncle, no psychological problems.”
“Other similarities, differences?”
“Some of the parents are wealthy, some in the middle, some on the poverty line. Whoever is behind this wants healthy children. Race is not a criterion, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, in fact it’s almost like a population sample. Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it until now, it just popped in my head.”
“Five to twelve. Whoever it is doesn’t want infants or toddlers, they want kids that can pour their own milk, brush their own teeth and are potty trained.”
“What for? Suppose if we knew that, we’d know who to look for. Let me drift away from PC, the kids attractive?”
“Yes, no tubbies, no flakes, none with a chronic disease. They aren’t going for IQ, none are prodigies or savants, nor are they slow learners. Another interesting bit, how do the kidnappers know? Physical beauty is easy, but health, intelligence? 
“Any other similarities? Music or sports, any social media connections.”
“They didn’t know each other, some went to private school, some public, two homeschooled. Typical kid sports, but no commonalities, never played in leagues that would have crossed paths, too far apart.”
“We’re really getting nowhere fast, we’ll have this wrapped up in a century or so.”
“A startup commune?”
“You may be onto something. To brainwash, to breed when they get older, a cult that requires child sacrifice? That’s ugly.”
“There’s the obvious.”
“Yes, child sex, either for personal pleasure or profit. The racial mix would make sense, and no brilliant kids who might figure out escape alternatives.”
“Still, a fair amount of trouble, searching out those specifics, maybe not, social media, school websites with yearbook photos, might be easier than I think.”
“Doing it across the country, is there a pattern, an order to the kidnappings?”
“No, Grace B put the captures on a plotline, it’s almost random, like they had states dropped in a hat, pulled one out, find a kid and took him or her. One clue, a child was taken in Connecticut and a day later in Oregon. Unless they have a private plane, there’s no way that can happen with just one kidnapper.”
“One kidnapper can’t handle twelve kids anyway. Which begs the question, when was the first abduction?”
“Nine months ago, twelve kids, one every three weeks give or take. The latest was three days ago.”
“Do you call the FBI?”
“Yes. I thought about doing our own preliminary investigation, but we may create more delay. The important thing is to find out where the kids are, presuming they haven’t been sold off and are either in private hands or out of the country. The second most important thing is to put an end to it.”
“So we give the details to the FBI but work on it in our own way as well.”
“Of course, we’re not just going to hand this off.”
I grin, “No, you have a problem to wrestle with, it would be impossible for you to set aside for others to solve. Call the feds, I’ll round up Nishiko and fill her in, she’ll want to put her mind on it as well, Daria and Katya think sneaky, I’ll include them.”
Janah can connect with one of her FBI contacts. Nikko is having coffee in the kitchen, which is a part of the living area large as an old world  hotel lobby, just with new world furnishings. She’s seated at the island chatting with Valeria.
“Valeria, please find Daria and Katya and ask them to join us.”
A minute later, the five of us are around the island with a cup of steaming caffeine, I cover what we have.
Daria, “You have the bots projecting possibilities?”
“They do that as a matter of course. We know where the kids taken from, but not where to, are they being warehoused, already gone, sold off? Grace B says the probability is seventy six point six percent that the kids have been taken for sex. If that’s true, it’s sixty percent probable they are in the hands of various pimps, thirty percent that they were sold to private parties, ten percent overseas.”
Katya, “And the other twenty three point four percent?”
“Unknown. They can’t be on the black market adoption circuit, they’re too old, recognizable. Besides, children their age have been genetically profiled, once they’re found, if they’re found, it’s simple to know where they came from. Every other possibility is more speculative, like a cult looking to bring in future breeders.”
Katya, “What was that old movie, kids had to fight it out until only one was left?”
“Hunger Games.”
Nikko, “Seems extreme, the only bit that fits is Hunger Games had representatives from Districts, the winner got more benefits for his or her District. One kid per state is sort of like that, but the similarity falls apart since I see no way to reward a state. It isn’t like there’s a food shortage.”
“Any suggestions for an approach, where to begin?”
Katya, “There’s no pattern, or not much of one, most children are average intelligence, at that age, thirty percent or more would qualify as attractive. Do you have photos?”
Grace B joins us, “I have run a photo profile, we have current faces, and a fair amount of full body shots as they grew up. The differences are obvious, race and skin color. The similarities are interesting, while faces are not similarly structured when I compare them to each other, instead, they each represent a sort of racial ideal. Like all the most attractive Hispanics, Caucasians, Africans, Asians.”
Daria, “To what end? If they eventually breed them, they would need to maintain racial purity, like breeding dogs for show.”
“Are the children that racially pure?”
Grace B, “Parents and grandparents, the ones we could find, are, let me run the genealogy.”
A few seconds blip by, “Yes, to the extent there are records available, all the kids have ancestors of the same race.”
Nikko, “That’s bizarre, who has access to that kind of data?”
“We do for starters. Almost any healthcare database today has genetic profiles that include actual genealogy, who the relatives are or were.”
Grace B, “That is true, but irrelevant, the genetic profile alone would indicate racial purity without needing to know genealogy.”
“Duh, of course.”
Grace B, “You are only human, full of buggy programs.”
Valeria, “Sounds as if someone wants to create a group of Amayas.”
We laugh, “By race, perfect replicas of the racial physical ideal.”
Grace B, “Eventually it would break down, first, some births would have unanticipated genetic modifications, they would be throwaways. Second, unless they collect a fairly huge sample population, inbreeding would catch up to them.”
“True…wait…suppose they aren’t going for intra-race perfection, rather the creation of inter-race perfection?”
Grace B, “You aren’t as dumb as you look. Combine all the best parts of the races, at least appearance-wise, you get exotically gorgeous creatures.”
Janah comes from the office, “Tea.”
Valeria, “In the pot, needs to be warmed.”
I pour a cup and microwave it, hand it off to my other.
Janah, “Filled in the FBI, a woman researcher close to the Deputy Director. She said she’s either going to get laughed out of the room or a commendation.”
Valeria, “How does it work, Mrs. Pearson calling the FBI?”
“When they contact us, it’s either something baffling or something they want done without doing it themselves. The first would be a situation they can’t figure out, occasionally it’s a crime. More likely, they have a known pest but not enough evidence to make an arrest. The second is when we pass messages between departments that have a Chinese wall, one agency isn’t supposed to know what the other is doing. The alleged purpose is to prevent leaks. Agency A has an informant, Agency B is looking into criminal activity by said informant or his associates. If B talks to A, chances are good the informant gets a heads up since A doesn’t want to lose their source of information. We mediate an agreement without memos, both parties have deniability, ‘nobody here talked to anybody there’. We don’t help with so-called government secrets or classified data, it’s tail chasing. Grace B hacks into the feds all the time, they have no secrets from us. We can’t grasp why much of it is classified, a fair amount is already public knowledge, or at least obvious. Our theory is that they classify stuff to make themselves appear important. If governments want to hack into each other’s crap, we figure it’s a zero sum game. They stick in bullshit, we stick in bullshit, they hack each other, nobody can separate the poop from the popcorn. Mrs. Pearson has even said so, nobody she talks to denies it.”
Valeria, “Why do we have them at all?”
“As an investigative agency, the FBI more or less does a good job. The CIA is fairly pointless, except they come in handy for starting revolutions against regimes that have fallen out of American favor. Basically, they’re gun runners and bag men.”
“What’s a bag man?”
Katya, “The guy who delivers the cash, revolution is expensive, mercenaries expect to be paid.”
“So it isn’t about ideology?”
“Only the ideology of money and power, the rest is confabulation to justify murder.”

Sixty Three

A week passes, nothing from the Feds, nothing on our end. We have no place to look. The children could have been abducted by aliens, there’s no CCTV footage, whoever snatched them did their homework. There is no pattern to the abductions, some were going to or from school, or an extracurricular activity, music lesson, soccer, dance class, a couple were supposed to be at home. No panicked phone calls, no text, unlike us, the kids weren’t tethered to a GPS system. We don’t go anyplace without our tribe knowing where we are within one foot. 
Ours are implanted under the skin, you can run your finger over it, not so much as a bump. The children also wear obvious GPS necklaces or bracelets. Kidnappers would rip those off and figure the child is no longer trackable. They would be grossly mistaken. Even Morshchiny has a tracker, can’t be losing our dear monster Mastiff, although I’m not sure who could take her, they’d need a fork lift, a big truck and a load of tranquilizer.
Janah, “Talked to my contact, they’re as blank as we are. The only good news is it made them dig in, the FBI doesn’t like to be bested by child kidnappers. They’re stuck on the pedophile idea, it’s the most obvious. They’ve hauled in and interrogated the pedos that might have the brains and the range to pull this off, my contact said they played hardball. While most of the suspects live in one of the abduction states only one has traveled to any of the others. He’s eighty four and unlikely to be grabbing ten year olds off the street.”
“We have to bring in our little guns.”
Janah, “Let’s do it.”
We’re in the dorm with the children, Kota B, Hypatia B, Oceane and Cassandra are here as well. I outline the problem.
“We need to find these children, we have almost nothing to go on but photos, approximations of when and where they were taken. We need you to contact the Zycyryn and ask for their help. Just focus on one abduction, not all of them, we have photos, study them, leave them out when the Zycyryn come. Oceane, try to visit the past. Anything you see will help, do you understand?”
She stares off into wherever it is Oceane stares off into, “Show me.”
Janah gives her the tablet with a set of photos, a Japanese girl who lives in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco. There are pictures of her home, the school she attended, photos of her playing tennis. Appears to be ten, adorable girl, last seen walking in the direction of her father’s office a few blocks from the school. She never arrived.
Oceane studies the photos, hands the tablet to Nadia, the children circle around to take a look.
“Better if I go to the place. Touch things she touched.”
“Alright, Kota B, get us a flight first thing tomorrow, it’s an hour up, returning same day, closest airport, a car and directions to the school with the route to her dad’s office.”
Janah, “I’ll contact the father, see if he can get us in the school and perhaps bring something of hers. Have to tread carefully, he might think I’m a weirdo.”
“You are a weirdo, but not in the way he might assume. Maybe wait and see him in person, you go in alone, ease his mind. If Oceane needs a personal item, you can get it then. There may be stuff at the school. Let me think, Nikko should go with you, a Japanese will relate.”
Valeska, “Tonight we will summon the Zycyryn. If we dance for them, they may help, otherwise they do not interfere in the affairs of life forms they encounter. Dancing is not entertainment for them, they see it as an expression of our sincerity, that our request is important.”
“You can do what you can do, they know you were rescued, perhaps that will hold sway. You are special to them.”
Kota B, “You must leave now, the children need time to prepare. I have messaged Amaya that we will not be rehearsing the play this afternoon due to special circumstances. No one is to come to the dorm, I will fetch a light dinner for them later. Valeria can message me when it is ready. Your flight is for eight tomorrow, the car will be waiting.”
Janah and I offer kisses around to the children, I give Morshchiny a scratch behind the ears and we head downstairs. Dahlia and Clarissa, although still children, are not part of the Zycyryn children. They don’t sleep in the dorm. They interact with the others, but unlike the kids in the dorm they won’t be children forever.
Janah, “Speaking of dinner…”
“Grilled fish, choice of lemon sauce or meunière, feel free to half and half the filet. Creamed corn, stuffed potato. Appetizer of fried vegetables, mushrooms, cauliflower and broccoli.”
“Did you forget dessert?”
“Cherry raspberry pie, with or without frozen vanilla custard.”
“With. I’m headed to a yoga session with Lauren, Amaya and Britt, I think Chloe will be with Nikko at kendo, the children are not participating of course.”
“Zi and I have Valeria, Dahlia and Clarissa for gung fu. No idea what the others are up to. See you for tea.”
We go off in separate directions, me to the gym/martial arts room, Janah generally does yoga outside. As we gather in the gym, Nikko and Chloe are going at it with shinai on one end. I tell Nikko the plan, she nods and returns to practice.
Gung Fu girls start with basic stances, a form repeated a dozen times and we finish off with light sparring. Dahlia, Clarissa against each other, Valeria takes on Zi. Of course, Zi is a priest, and Valeria has no chance, but that’s the idea. One day, my dead serious and ruthlessly persistent student will have a chance, then one day she will win.
For the finale, I’m doubled by Valeria and Zi in a largely half contact round. Valeria can go full contact, Zi and I turn down the power to avoid needing an hour of healing Qi from Janah and Daria. We have a problem to solve and don’t need to take the time or risk more serious injury.
Still, we’re a fairly sweaty mess as the end. Hypatia B hands out towels, she’s taken an interest in our martial arts training, she observed both the kendo girls and us the entire session.
Nikko and Chloe watched the sparring rounds, Chloe says, “Valeria, you are holding your own.”
Valeria, “Spasibo Vesnushki, I am years away from Zi and Daphne.”
Nikko, “They have years on you, you will develop your style and become their equal, perhaps even surpass. Dahlia and Clarissa are attentive students.”
Zi, “And diligent, I see them practicing by the pool mornings while the children swim.”
Clarissa, “Hypatia B reminds us of the stances, and if we forget a move in the form. Then we have philosophy class, and math. My sister is actually getting the math, she’s better at the philosophy part.”
During cocktails I relate some of what we’re working on to one group, Janah is doing the same with another, tonight the children remain in the dorm. Kota B comes along and she and Hypatia B tote dinner upstairs. They have a full kitchen and can keep the fish and sides warm while they enjoy fried vegetables as their appetizer.
Amaya, “There is no end to child snatching is there?”
“Apparently not, Grace B says total incidents of child sexual abuse are down, primarily due to the availability on VR. The hardcore want the real thing. Some like the child to be scared and crying, others smooth talk them into thinking it’s a form of love, or just fun. It’s all ugly, the most horrid are the torturers, getting off on burns, cuts, frozen baths or scalding water, if a human can conceive it, somebody will do it.”
Katya, “We have a specialty in child abusers. Daphne and Janah have rules about killing, Shadows excepted, I have no such rules. Besides, Sarah and Mani need to murder someone occasionally, so I allow them to take out brutalizers.”
Chloe, “Grace B finds them for you then?”
“Yes, reports are sometimes kept sealed because releasing the name of the abuser leads to the child. Sealed records mean nothing to our bots. Daria could hack them as well, the bots are faster.”
Lauren, “I know Sarah and Mani fly off someplace once in a while, they never talk about it.”
Katja, “What you don’t know, you can’t testify about. Of course, you would never voluntarily testify, but there are drugs today. Maybe not as good as ours, but effective nonetheless.”
“In a way, their method is easier on the target than ours. We make them incapable of having sex with anyone, we neuter them as a matter of course, they don’t want to have sex with anyone. By the time Janah messes with their mind, even the thought of a child makes them violently ill. Katya’s crew just eliminates them altogether.”
Britt, “So Sarah and Mani don’t, um, play with them first?”
Katya, “No reason. They like to see the target die, and to be the cause of it. If I didn’t allow them to take out child torturers, they would need other targets. They don’t need a weekly or even a monthly kill, only occasionally. Unfortunately, the bots uncover a violent abuser every few weeks. Ellen goes once in a while, Sarah and Mani get the rest.”
After dinner and dessert, some go outside to enjoy the evening air with a nightcap, the rest of us watch an hour of Netflix drama about yet another mentalist mind reader. Not too horrid, the main character is a twelve year old girl with a razor wit. The boring part is mommy’s nagging and her new studley boyfriend. They always have to have a love interest, usually a man, the more chiseled, the more obnoxious.
We have an early flight and a bit of sniffing around to do, Janah and I curl into each other and ease into blissful unconsciousness.

Sixty Four

We’ve been to Santa Rosa before, years ago. Three ex military snoops decided to get into business together. They also decided to skip traditional financing, instead coerce a few small owners into selling at a giveaway price. Dry cleaners were popular targets, an electronics vendor, and, for fun, a strip club that supplied them with a free string of girls to play with. After making recompense to the people they stole businesses from, we put them out of business, out of their minds and onto the mean streets. I have no idea where they are, neither do they.
Santa Rosa is bigger now, richer, a bedroom community for San Francisco and what’s left of Silicon Valley. The big players remain, but smaller concerns were priced out of the market. Back then, a six figure salary didn’t pay for a one bedroom apartment, people making a buck fifty a year had to have roomies.
The missing girl is Ana Sato, her father is a lawyer with a decent private practice. More than enough Japanese in the area running family enterprises and needing help to wade through the regulations, fees and inspections of a bureaucracy that never tires of piling up rules.
Janah is in with him now. She can take a mind much like a Shadow, she’s just not malicious about it. In this case, what we need is a cooperative dad that isn’t going to reach for the phone to include the police or FBI in the conversation. We’re traveling under assumed names, and enough disguise so as not to be fingered in any CCTV we might wander past, but we don’t want the constabulary to start sniffing around again, he’s already spoken to them once. All we need from Mr. Sato is a personal article of Ana’s, one she handled either frequently or recently. It happens that he still has the backpack left behind when she was abducted.
Oceane is fingering the pack, then the stuff inside, books, phone, sweater, a goldmine from Oceane’s standpoint.
Mr. Sato, “What does she hope to find out from that? The police rummaged through it, but didn’t see it as evidence, although I did allow them look through the phone. There was nothing to indicate she had called or had been called by anyone other than family or friends. Only her mother calls, everyone else uses text or voice to text.”
Janah, “My associate can sometimes pick up a sense of what the person was doing, or what was in their mind by touching personal items. Don’t ask me to explain how, we don’t know. It doesn’t always work, for instance if the item was handled by a lot of people, like the phone. As I said, we do this in cases where there appear to be dead ends. A missing child, no ransom demand, no evidence of a struggle, not a runaway, just vanished. I’m sure you’ve been through a thousand scenarios, I won’t add more guesswork.”
Sato, “Ana is our only child, her mother has shut down, she sits at the kitchen table staring at the phone…waiting, I can barely get her to eat.”
Nikko, “It would be best if you didn’t mention our visit. This may come to nothing, getting her hopes up only to have it come apart again is counterproductive.”
“I won’t. I won’t let myself anticipate, your efforts are appreciated, but I must say, I doubt you will find anything in the face of the police and FBI investigations, they came up empty.”
“Then we can’t do any worse, and rest assured, we do not work with the media, nobody but you and us will ever know we were here. If our researches lead to anything, we do not want any public recognition.”
That one of us is Japanese doesn’t hurt, Sato spoke more to Nikko than Janah, said nothing to Oceane.
Oceane has taken a particular interest in the sweater, now she’s sniffing it, she looks up, “Take me to the place.”
Sato looks perplexed.
Nikko, “She means the place where Ana was taken. It doesn’t need to be the exact spot, I understand the school is four blocks away, straight down the street outside.”
“Yes, nobody knows the exact location, no one saw anything. It’s mostly residential until this block, a short string of small offices and retail, then residential again two bocks further on.”
“We will walk it, you need not come along, I’m sure this is painful enough. Oh, we will need the sweater, just for the walk, I’ll return it when we finish, is that okay?”
“It is her favorite.”
“And it will be returned in less than twenty minutes just as it is.”
He nods assent, Oceane, Nikko and Janah come out of the office, I stayed outside with Cassie.
We start down the block, “Cassie, feet stay on the ground.”
She smiles at me, then walks along next to Oceane. I lead, Janah and Nikko take positions behind.
Halfway into the next block Oceane stops, holds the sweater to her face. Closes her eyes, “Taken here.”
The house directly across is for sale, the one behind us is occupied, but the residents appear to be at work, or elsewhere. It’s morning, Ana was taken after school, if the street was as quiet then, it’s small wonder nobody noticed. I scan the houses, nothing stirs, there’s not a dog in a yard.
Oceane, “A woman asked for directions, the girl was unsure. She was not wearing the pack, it was on her arm. She put it down here,” Oceane points to the sidewalk, “walked to the curb, someone came up behind her, she was swept into the back seat.”
“Describe the car Oceane.”
She stares up at the sky, “Gray, like dull silver, not very big.”
Oceane doesn’t know from cars, it could have been anything compact or mid-size.
“Describe the woman.”
“Dark hair, short, just over her ears. Sunglasses, a black hat like Dasha wears. She had something in her mouth, a stick, the tip glowed when she sucked on it and smoke came out.”
A fedora and an electronic cigarette.
“What else?”
“On her nose, black.”
“A mole?”
Oceane smiles, “Amaya does not allow.”
Amaya finds flaws distasteful. If a mole dare creep up on us, she hauls us to the workshop and the bots remove it with a laser. We have our own dermatological clinic. Maybe she’s behind our theory that the abductors are trying to create perfect people. Yes, Chloe has freckles. Amaya considers those enchanting enhancements, go figure, it’s Amaya, she makes her own rules.
“Anything else? Any other detail in your mental picture?”
“The girl never saw the second one, head covered as soon as she got in the car. I feel a hand over her mouth.”
“Anything about the car? What else did the little girl see?”
“Past the woman, what is the thing under the glass….,” she spreads her hands palms down indicating a flat surface..
“The dashboard?”
“A figure stuck on, a woman in a robe, with her hands out,” she opens her arms, palms out.
“A Virgin Mary?”
I don’t know why I made it a question, Oceane wouldn’t know Virgin Mary from Buddha. She smiles at Cassie, takes her hand, heads back to our car. This conversation is done.
Nikko, “The girl is remarkable, what do we tell the father?”
Janah, “You return the sweater, no details, she got a few sensations but it takes time to sort them out. Obviously thank him for his cooperation and promise we will be in touch as soon as we have something.”
“What if he can recognize the car, knows someone with a statue on the dash?”
“Leave it for now. He’s desperate, despite keeping his cool, he goes to the FBI with a story of a gray car and a plastic Virgin Mary, they ask him where he got that information…you can see the problem.”
Nikko returns the sweater, inside for ten minutes, then returns to the car.
“He wanted to unload, needed to tell me about the child. He’s a smitten father, she is his world. If this ends badly, Sato is a broken man. I said the only thing I could, we will not rest until she is found. Despite his preoccupation, he is perceptive. He looked at me a long time, then said, ‘You are samurai, I do not know which clan and you cannot tell me, but it is in your eyes. If anyone can find my precious daughter, it is you.’
“I was, of course, deeply honored and told him so. He was going to weep, which he could not do in front of me. I nodded and left.”
Oceane sleeps on the short flight home, by the time we arrive she has forgotten where she went and why. She doesn’t ask, curiosity is not her strong suit. When we get to the compound, she glides up the stairs to her room, Cassandra floating along behind her.

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