Seventy Three

We had a superb time. First, Ellen and Dasha’s food, splendidly crispy chicken and creamy white beans with chunks of ham accompanied by fat hunks of cornbread.
Second, the children put on a dazzling performance of synchronized dance that was partly dance and partly gymnastics, the players winding around each other in total harmony with a background of electronic trance music. The choreography was mystifying. Then a shower of sparkles out of nowhere, the sound of Zycyryn humming.
Towards the end, a portion of the spinning sparkles broke off from the main body and surrounded Akiko sitting cross legged next to the performers. Inside the swirl of lights, we could make out Akiko’s grinning face, her white hair dancing this way and that.
Zycyryn are seldom visible, never to people who don’t know how to let them reveal themselves. Despite incredulity, my eyes and the swish of zycyrynzycyrynzycyryn audible made it undeniable. They disappeared as instantaneously as they appeared.
Zoe C, “If anyone told me that was possible I would have called them delusional, but the energy was palpable, not to mention the sparks in a coordinated spiral a hundred feet in the air, surrounding each girl in their light.”
Natalie, “That was incredibly touching…electrifying even, I’m still shaking.”
Zoe C, “Wonder why they selected Akiko out?”
Uma, the youngest of the eternal children, “They know one of their own, children of the stars, sometimes they do it with Cassandra, tonight they were delighted to make a new friend,” she kisses Akiko on the cheek then the children swarm up the exterior balcony steps to their dorm.
Oceane and Cassie come over, Akiko joins them for a walk out on the property to enjoy the stars on a night so clear it looks Windexed.
Elle, “Damn, I need a drink.”
Ellen stands, “Amaya and I will take orders, just relax and enjoy the evening.”
Zak, Mickey and Valeria go off in the opposite direction followed by three gigantic dogs, Burma riding Zelda, the two younger Burmese ride Cilia and Morshchiny. 
The rest of us enjoy Champagne or vodka rocks, we do it in silence, grateful for what we were privileged to witness.
Around ten we take our leave, our Tahoe stuffed with six people, Burma and the two dogs. Elle and Zoe C got invitations to spend the night, Elle by Amaya, Zoe C by Ellen. Someone will drive them home tomorrow, or I’ll hop over and collect them.
Natalie decides I need to have my way with her, lucky me, still vibing from our experience, the orgasm is explosive. We lay side by side, staring at the ceiling.
Natalie, “How wonderful our lives are. Sometimes I think I’ll go to sleep and wake up to find it’s all a dream.”
“Well, the nondualists say it’s all a dream, but I don’t care about that. If it’s duality for me to feel a me making love to you, I’ll stick with duality, enlightenment can wait.”
She giggles, reaches over, “Let me help you power up, my greedy duality based self wants a replay.”
She does, then I do. After I find my breath, we refresh and collapse into the infinite.
Then there’s a cat on my chest, tapping my nose with a soft paw.
“Good morning Burma, where’s Mickey? She fed you yet?”
Burma leaps off the bed and scurries down the hall. I leave Nat to sleep, grab a shower and go in search of coffee.
Mac is stirring something, I take a look, steel cut oatmeal. Akiko is cracking eggs for a scramble.
“Girls sleep well?”
Akiko smiles gently, McKenzie says, “We went to bed and died, no dream, no stirring, we woke up in the same position we went to sleep in.”
“Pretty much my night. It’s like a coven of witches at Daphne’s, good witches, magical witches. Even the dogs had fun. Where are they anyway?”
“Still asleep, they were on the go from our arrival to out departure, it might take them all day to recover.”
I go check the website, we just got off a vigilante rampage, an exaggeration, things went rather smoothly. Still, it’s tense until it’s over and our people are safe.
Let’s see, I scroll through a couple of bullshit messages, ‘my wife is crazy can you take her out?’ another whoever wants an asshole boss brought down to size, we don’t do that stuff. I delete the messages, read a third.
‘Something has gone weird at my daughter’s school, an elementary school, first through sixth. Two unrelated children have approached teachers for sex. One little girl, eight, walked up to her teacher, pulled up her dress, nothing underneath and asked if she liked her pussy. A boy, eleven, asked the assistant principal to suck his cock, a third fifth grade girl was caught giving oral sex to four boys. This over the course of three weeks. These are middle class off-the-rack kids, nothing close to it has ever happened. The children seemed more confused than anything. Can you help? Lubbock Texas.’
I call Janah, read her the message.
“Yep, a Shadow. Little kids don’t catch a sex virus and go crazy, not three kids from different families but the same school. Let Ms. Pearson look into it. We much enjoyed the company yesterday, the children are still asleep, in fact, only Daphne, Dasha and I are up. Dasha has breakfast to prep for twenty eight but it’s not so bad with the bots.”
“Where were the bots yesterday, I didn’t notice then, but now that you mentioned it, I don’t recall them being around.”
“Eloise has them, new hardware and upgraded software, they were in the workshop and offline.”
“Ah, got it. Call me with any detail, this sounds ugly.”
We disconnect. Janah can find out what the President is having for lunch with a phone call, she’ll come back with anything current on the situation.
I hear a car, Zoe C, Elle and Sloane come in.
“Just got off the phone with Janah, looking into an inquiry, she and I are thinking Shadow.”
Zoe C, “I’ll check the site, got coffee?”
“I’ll bring it in, Sloane, have a cup, Mac is making breakfast, might as well eat, oatmeal and eggs.”
Sloane, “Thanks, I’ll text Daphne and tell her I’m breakfasting here.”
I take Zoe C a fresh cup, Sloane and I go out to the patio, park at one of the tables.
Sloane, “A Shadow again, we’re never able to get a handle on how many might be out there. And we don’t even look overseas, there could be hundreds, a few thousand even.”
Zoe C, “You have serious teeth, something on purpose? Am I being nosy?”
Sloane laughs, “Not at all, yep, I’m the wolf-girl, a transmission I received in Canada, I’m on my sixth generation of Canadian wolf friends. Daphne got her night vision, and hand strength from the owl, her hearing was already acute, with the owl’s help she can hear snow fall. Then she met an eagle, now she can see a rabbit moving a mile away.”
“Good Lord, and you and she somehow connected with these animals?”
“They came to us, the eagle after Janah saved one that had been shot by dipshit American hunters. Dasha and Daria were given the grizzly bear’s strength. I always figured they’re Russian, the bear is their symbol but I doubt the bear knows that.”
Zoe C, “The things we don’t understand.”
Sloane, “Janah says we fail to make the connections that run through all life, and run through the things we don’t consider to be alive, the mountain, the ocean, a rock. It’s all vibing with energy.”
McKenzie and Akiko bring out breakfast, steel cut oatmeal steams in the bowl, a pitcher of warm milk, clarified butter, cane sugar. Fluffy scrambled with mascarpone and stacks of buttered toast, tea and fresh coffee.
Natalie appears, “Sit and eat McKenzie, Akiko, I’ll get oatmeal in a minute, first coffee. How are you Sloane?”
“Good food, good company and good coffee, never better.”
“We have to go to Lubbock Texas, McKenzie, Akiko, Zoe C. You and Elle can take care of Zak and Mickey…the dogs?”
Natalie, “Sure, Mickey and Zak pretty much take care of themselves, Elle can make breakfast, I’ll stock up on cold cuts for lunch, fetch takeout for dinner. How long, any idea?”
“No, it sounds like a Shadow, maybe more than one, all we have is strange behavior from kids at one school,” I do a quick summary.
“Those people are an annoyance, playing nasty games with schoolchildren, how fucking lame.”
Sloane, “Their brains are scrambled, they hate their condition, which they never admit to bringing on themselves, instead they take it out on civilians, ordinary people. Janah and Daphne stopped one group from making cops massacre school kids, the plan was to create a major distraction while the others robbed a bank. Actually, it was in Killeen, maybe Shadows like Texas.”
McKenzie, “Killeen is south of Dallas, Lubbock to the northwest, three hundred thirty three miles from one to the other.”
“It isn’t the same group, Janah, Daphne and I think Dasha went, they killed them all. Killeen is a weird place, huge army base, biggest employer, and the highest robbery and burglary rates in Texas, higher than most of the country.”
“Isn’t that where an army psychiatrist went off the rails and started shooting people?
McKenzie, “Ft. Hood, Nidal Hasan killed thirteen and wounded thirty two others. He was convicted by a military court and sentenced to death but the case is still in the appellate system.”
Natalie, “Jesus, he’s on an army base but they weren’t able to kill him on the spot?”
“He was shot by a soldier but not fatally, it did stop him though. He had been in touch with one of the Muslim Imams, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike ordered by President Obama.”
Sloane, “McKenzie is as bad as Janah, or as good I should say, head full of facts they can pull up instantly.”

Seventy Four

Flight to Lubbock is around nine hundred miles, couple of hours in the air, lose two in time zones, we hit the airport at one. Janah was curious about this one, she and Daphne came along with Dasha and Daria, our crew is Zoe C, McKenzie and Akiko. One thing we won’t be short on is Qi power. Not from me or Zoe C, but the rest can generate external energy from their internal power source. Ought to be overkill, I hope so anyway, you always want to go to war with more ammunition than the enemy.
We have two SUVs waiting, besides normal luggage we need a bit of space for drones, pharmaceutical cases, dart rifles, Zoe C’s sniper rifle and two smaller cases for Glocks and ammunition….I did say war, didn’t I? 
For the girls, Zoe C booked three suites at Staybridge Suites which we’ve used before. Full kitchen is the main attraction, we can gather in one for meals and planning. I have a fourth suite, booking overkill but girls need bathroom space and each room has only one.
I make coffee, girls show up at my room for a confab. 
Daphne, “I mapped out the location of the school, at least one of us who can sense Shadows needs to hang around there and see if the Shadow shows.”
Zoe C, “Can he, or she, control from a distance? Like can they plant the idea before the kid goes to school, or does he have to be there, in close proximity?”
Janah, “Yes, but the effect frequently wears off after a quarter hour or so, and sometimes sooner. The only way for a Shadow to be sure the behavior is carried out is to be nearby in order to keep mental control. We have no way of knowing if other kids had their minds taken but too much time passed and nothing happened. The kid would have no recollection of the Shadow’s instructions, as if they were never given.”
“So the three had the bad luck of showing up while under the influence so to speak.”
“Yep, and the Shadow will learn, look to grab the mind while the student is close to the school.”
“These schools have security officers, or off-duty cops?”
“Lubbock schools have a separate security force that works with Lubbock police, so, yes, there’s an officer in each school.”
“What if…..?”
Janah, “The officer is a Shadow?”
“You read my mind.”
“Wait, you think the Shadow is the guard?”
Janah, “I have no idea, it’s a possibility, and maybe even likely, particularly if they swap around schools, so the same guard isn’t there every day. A Shadow could capture the guard, swap clothes and show up at the school for instance. Or be a substitute teacher, or even a full time teacher, although Shadows aren’t known for patience or kindness, full time teacher is not a Shadow job description.”
Daphne, “School is still in session, I’m going over to see what’s what.”
Dasha, “Not anyway alone you aren’t, Dasha will go with, eef ees Shadowy peerson I will kill and we can go home.”
Daphne grins, “Apparently I need my own security guard, let’s go girl, see if we can sniff out a Shadow.”
They take off, we take a few to settle in, “Zoe C, we need to make a grocery run, any requests?”
Janah, “Whatever you get we’ll eat. I’m going to stay in Daphne’s head, Daria will follow her sister the same way.”
We go off to the nearest supermarket, the hotel has breakfast, I skip that sort of stuff and rely on cold cuts, loaf of multigrain, condiments, chips, cocktail peanuts and snack crackers. Two bottles of red, one vodka, jar of stuffed olives. 
Zoe C, “I’m getting cookies, they might want a nibble later. Also coffee, tea and the additives, paper coffee cups with lids, anything else?”
“Sounds right,” at the deli counter I get a pound each of pastrami, chipotle turkey and a half of sliced pepper cheese. 
We return to the hotel, nothing of significance happened.
Janah, “They parked, waiting for the school to empty out. Today’s security guard is not a Shadow but Dasha sensed that gray smoky trail Shadows leave but she said it was faint.”
“At least it confirms a Shadow, now all we need do is locate the prick.”
Zoe C, “I’ll make tea, they had Assam, the black tea that’s nearly coffee.”
Daria, “Favorite tea of twins, both sets, we like strong black tea.”
“Yeah, I saw it at your place so I figured good Russian-American girls were fond of it,” she digs around in the bag, “shortbread, oatmeal and chocolate cookies too.”
Janah, “Pass me the shortbread, I’m hungry.”
Daria, “You and Sloane are always hungry.”
Janah giggles, “It’s true, early days in the temple nearly killed me, two meals a day, the last at one o’clock lunch. Fortunately Daphne ran the kitchen, she would sneak me snacks.”
“The head guys, Masters, didn’t object?”
“No, Shaolin are expected to be devious and cunning. Plus Daphne’s meals were so good they couldn’t bust her, she might have quit. She had to sneak Chan and Black extras, those were big boys. Eventually they allowed an evening meal as long as it was light, soup and rice for instance. Students, Disciples and Masters all felt more energized so nobody complained except Master Tan, but he complained about everything. Daphne would bring him extra food, he’d bitch but he ate it. We loved the crotchety old man, he transmitted his Qi to us, we were his only students until I introduced him to Chan. Little brother blew us away eventually.”
Zoe C, “If he’s got more juice than Dasha, I’d love to see him in action.”
Janah, “If we need him, all I have to do is call. I doubt it on this trip, Dasha, Daria and McKenzie are an entire army, and Akiko is significantly talented.”
If Akiko is flattered nobody can tell, she’s smiling and busy with a chocolate cookie, she’s made it float off the platter and into her hand.
Zoe C shakes her head, “And to think I had the temerity to wonder how to help a quiet albino girl. She needs my help like McKenzie needs to diet.”
Mac is a rail, even crossing fourteen, she filled out a bit…not much. She has no conception of her beauty, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking in a mirror, maybe when she brushes her teeth or combs her hair, although I mostly see Natalie brushing it.
Daphne and Dasha return, “Tea is ready, cookies on the table, sit, I’ll heat the tea, what happened?”
Dasha, “We know ees Shadow peerson, but not where yet. Maybe he moves on to something else, had his fun with little kids. Dahfoney and I will go again to school in the morning early. The rest can check out nearby schools, then we widen search. Janah, did you talk to Lubbock people?”
“Tomorrow, it’s not like I can tell them I’m looking for a Shadow, they don’t know from Shadow. I’ll think of something, like he’s hypnotizing kids, or drugging them. A bit of Rohypnol and they would become obedient enough.”
“Da, okay, maybe ees even true except I saw Shadowy fragment, Shadow ees in this someplace.”
“Zoe C and I went for basic, sandwiches, chips, if you want something else, let me know and I’ll hop out and fetch.”
Daphne, “Sandwiches are good, easy, not messy. I’ll make up some when we’re ready. I suggest we find something on TV and chill, early night, early morning.”
McKenzie surfs the TV, she finds a recently in theaters Jennifer Garner movie called Peppermint. A revenge and vengeance flick, our kind of stuff. Zoe C makes us a cocktail, vodka for us and our two Russian twins, red for Janah and half glasses with seltzer for Mac and Akiko. 
Daphne makes sandwiches, cuts them in diagonals and stacks them on a platter, opens a bag of waffle chips and pours them around the sandwiches. We get into the movie. It’s absurd of course, Garner shoots faster and more accurately than a dozen bad guys, at least she takes several beatings, she’s not invincible. I’d say fairly realistic for an action flick. Better to just watch the thing and suspend any notion of rational.
I shoo the girls off, “I can handle cleanup, get rested, we may have a long, maybe dangerous day tomorrow. Coffee will be ready here at six, we can grab breakfast downstairs then go lurk around schoolyards like perverts. I forgot my raincoat.”
Zoe C, “You see more naked girls than the dopes in strip clubs, if you’re a perv, you’re a lousy one.”
Dasha and Daria have one suite, Janah and Daphne another, Zoe C, Mac and Akiko the third. I clean up, take a hot shower, another vodka chilling over ice. Come out and click on the news, no sound, just the scroll. People are still ugly, particularly the current crop in Washington. Toss back the rest of my drink and do something productive, sleep.

Seventy Five

Daphne and Dasha are outside the school again, it’s seven-thirty. We debated whether to add a third car, McKenzie and Akiko go with Zoe C to a second school, Janah and I take an Uber to Enterprise and get a plain vanilla gray sedan. Schools are in session, we drive around other schools in the area, elementary, middle and high schools, one K-12 private academy. No Shadows leap out of the shrubbery. No dark mists suggesting one had been around recently.
Janah gets a mental contact from Daphne, she replays it for me, “No Shadow, the remnant from yesterday is gone. They know what schools we drove past, they’re taking ones on the other side.
I check in with Zoe C, ‘Nothing and nothing, I assume you’re having the same luck or I’d have heard from you.
‘Just about to check in myself, McKenzie said she feels uneasy.’
‘Not ill I hope.’
‘No, uneasy, disquieted, and Akiko’s smile has disappeared.’
‘She scared?’
‘No, serious, perhaps because McKenzie is troubled.’
‘We’re on the way. Eyes everywhere until we get there.’
‘Yep.’

I tell Janah, she connects with Daphne, the best thing about telepathy is never being out of cell range, it’s free and the batteries last longer.
I stop and get coffee and tea, Janah and I balance the cardboard holders to the car, then on the floor of the passenger side. We manage to get to Zoe C without dumping any.
We meet at a park find a table where we can talk. As I said, it’s a school day, only a few moms with toddlers across the field at the kiddie playground.
“McKenzie, what was it? You sensed something.”
“An itch in my head, like a buzz, someone was trying to access my mind but I didn’t see a Shadow. Akiko felt it too.”
“But he it didn’t get in.”
“No, we applied our Qi and it went away.”
Daphne, “Not good, it means a Shadow tried to tap in, failed, he’s going to wonder about that. And it’s going to bug him, Shadows don’t like no, or rejection in this case.”
Zoe C, “Could it be something else? Not a Shadow?”
McKenzie, “It was a Shadow, and we surveyed the area, nothing turned up.”
Janah, “Possibly doing random attacks, he sees a young girl, two, he gives it a go. The good news may be that he gave up and moved on, the bad news is he’s going to be more determined to find a fresh victim.”
“Then we need to find him. Janah, would he take another run at her, if he sees her again?”
“Impossible to say, these people are erratic. If he’s experienced he’s likely more serene about it, shrugs his shoulders, goes after a new distraction. Less experienced he gets frustrated and doubles down, which would be okay if it was one of us, not okay for a child who is an easy target.”
“You’re saying he will make it worse for them out of frustration, prove to himself that he’s still got it.”
“Possibly. In this he’s no different than a lot of people, he can’t accept his inadequacies, it must be someone else’s fault. In many ways, a new Shadow is the worst. The feeling of controlling a mind is a thrill, he feels like a super-power. More experienced Shadows are still arrogant, but  redirect their energy to something more interesting and challenging. Kiddie games don’t take long to lose their luster.”
Zoe C, “It’s like any porn, cheap thrill until it becomes repetitive.”
“Exactly. For some, they lose interest after a couple of times, others go in search of grittier porn, incest, put mom on the internet doing it with her son. Our guy’s stuff is relatively tame, I think he’s still a rookie, which introduces another potential problem.”
“What?”
“He’s being trained by a far more powerful Shadow, this kid stuff is his first test.”
Zoe C, “Crapola, two Shadows?”
“More. Shadows willing to train don’t stick to one student, they have a few, two or three at least. They do gopher things, bring meals, steal money, it’s to pay off the Master for his training.”
“Like a cult.”
“A psychotic one. I suppose all cults are neurotic, as is religion.”
I ask, “How do we find him, them?”
“Keep looking, I’m in touch with the locals, as Ms. Pearson. Daphne or I get a call if another weirdness occurs. Whether using McKenzie and Akiko as attractors works depends on what the newbie tells his Master. If he’s upfront, he says what happened. If he’s afraid of the Master, he says nothing. Shadows are not Zen Masters, willing to be patient for however long it takes to get the student to realize. Remember, they became Shadows by wanting to jump ahead, skip steps, like a monk with ADHD.”
“The Master doesn’t know, like doesn’t follow in the student’s head?”
“No, that’s a different talent, I haven’t seen Shadows use telepathy with each other, their brains are so tangled it isn’t worth the trouble, may not be possible. Telepathy is best when the two people involved have a strong bond. Shadows don’t like anyone, particularly other Shadows. Some take students for reasons I explained, others for temporary alliances if the objective is big or complicated. If they had their way, Shadows would stay in the shadows.”
Daphne, “Time to grab a quick lunch and drive around, then back to schools before the school day is over. Dasha and I are going uncomplicated, fast food we can eat on the go.”
We get in line at a Chick-fil-A drive thru, then take off in different directions, keep the same working partners, someone in each vehicle who can mentally reach someone in the other two cars. Now that it appears we are dealing with more than one Shadow, instant communication is best.
Janah and I take south, Zoe C and the girls northeast, Daphne and Dasha northwest. I drive easy while Janah focuses on people, for any hint of Shadow remnant hanging in the air. After two hours we take a break, fill the gas tank at a convenience store. A Diet Coke for me, Janah gets a bottle of green tea, then back on the road. I know more about Lubbock than I need to.
Janah, I’ve learned, gets an off-in-space look complete with a hint of a smile when Daphne’s in her head. I know the feeling, it happens with Zoe C and I. It’s an intimacy beyond physical intimacy.
“Daphne and Dasha found something, we need to get to them. Tell Zoe C.”
I do, we’re there in ten, Zoe C pulls up five minutes later.
Daphne, “We saw black mist, a Shadow was here recently. It was either a Shadow or one of those nasty diesel trucks passed just before we came along. We need to stay close, not a parade, just keep within a few blocks of each other.”
She gives us quadrants to follow, we’re driving around again, but in a much smaller area.
Janah, “There,” she points to a building that appears abandoned. It’s in good shape, no fences blocking access, she gets out and tries a door, locked.
The rest of our Shadow Commandos come along, we park and get out.
Daphne, “We’ll need to break in, The twins can deal with the lock. There’s a front and back door, fire escape down the side. Fortunately it’s only three floors.”
Dasha and Daria deal with opening the lock, we peer in windows. The first floor is empty. We go in together, half of us take the interior stairs left, the rest the right. There’s an elevator but we don’t need to get trapped in it.
The drones are great, but we can’t use them for this, I have one dart rifle, Zoe C another. I’ve got tranquilizers in mine, she’s got death.
“I know you know, but be careful with those things, miss a target and hit one of us…”
“You don’t want an early trip to the Void?”
“Maybe next time.”
I open the second floor door, see Daphne across the way looking in. There are boxes stacked all over, unmarked and sealed up. No time to investigate, doors close, we move on to the third floor.
Janah taps into Daphne, ‘Don’t open your door yet, I’m going to crack open mine and see what’s what.’
She whispers her message to me, I press the handle slowly, the door opens an inch.
A voice, male, authoritative, “Come in Shaolin, you picked a welcome day to die, and right here in my sanctum, how courteous of you.”
So much for stealth.
Janah and I walk in with McKenzie and Akiko behind. I see Daphne’s crew come in from their side. The place looks like either a Las Vegas hotel lobby or a mosque. Carpets of bright colors, bright ugly colors, a kitchen off to the rear, doors to what must be toilets, a bed. Only things missing are prayer rugs and slot machines. The speaker is clearly the lead dog, he’s got the big chair, four others sit cross-legged in a semi circle in front of him, two men, two women.
Lead Dog is rail thin, wiry, the other two men are off the rack. One is fat, blocky,  not obese. The other is unremarkable, he could be a welder or an insurance salesman. The woman on the left is about the same age as the others, middle, forty-ish. The woman on the right is young, late teens and striking. Can’t tell much else, they’re wearing full length brown robes, Lead Dog’s is purple.
Daphne, “When’s the play start? You look like the cast for a bad Bollywood flick. Who sings? There’s always smarmy singing in Bollywood movies. Musicals are stunningly boring.”
Lead Dog, “A sarcastic Shaolin. And we’ve heard about the white haired girl, but who is the second young girl, an albino? Such a beautiful smile, that one will be fun to play with.”
I turn to Akiko, “Want to demonstrate?”
She raises her hand, Lead Dog is blown out of his ugly chair and smacks up against the wall.
He shakes himself, stands, “Kill them all.”
Janah tells Zoe C and me, “Hold back on the darts for now, the Qi girls can use the exercise.”
Four Shadows of varied talent stand. Daphne engages Blocky. He gets in a good shot, or tries to, Daphne is far too fast, she side steps as the energy shoots past, a stack of cups on the kitchen counter explode, ceramic bits fly backwards into the wall.
She dances left, flicks a finger, Blocky’s cheek starts to bleed, then his shoulder twitches, a stain spreads under the robe. He goes for a second shot, the energy stream met by Daphne’s, a flash of sparks as they collide, then smoke. She’s playing with him.
Daria doesn’t have a sense of play. She’s got the older woman, who is baffled because she’s thrown three or four shots but Daria just stands there. Then Daria opens her hand, palm up, Older backs up, hands in front of her face. I watch her fly up and back, she actually hits the ceiling then smashes down over Lead Dog’s Big Chair. It snaps in half, Older is laying over the busted pieces, deader than road kill.
Dasha has Insurance Salesman. He’s experienced, not at all afraid. Too bad for him, he should be scared except he has no idea what’s in front of him. His Qi hits Dasha square in the chest three, then four times. She ignores it and stalks him around the room. Finally he’s up against the wall, attempting to inch over to the open door and the stairwell, looking to escape.
Dasha, “Let me help,” she picks him up by the neck and his belt, two steps out the door she throws him down to the second floor. I see her walk down, hear a loud groan, then the sound that must be him getting a hard assist to the first floor. 
McKenzie has the younger girl, I figure her for total newbie. McKenzie’s head snaps left, then right, she’s being punched by energy, her lip bleeds. So much for my figuring. 
Mac and Akiko sit on the floor, Teen Shadow in between the two. She turns to face Akiko, tries to nail her but the stream is deflected by McKenzie. Akiko’s Qi blasts into her gut, McKenzie’s to Teen’s upper back, Teen folds forward, staggers but isn’t done despite blood dripping from her mouth. She straightens, arms make a V over her head. The room heats suddenly, she wants to ignite the whole place with us in it.
Lead Dog has regrouped, the walls smoke.
Lead Dog, “It will be worth it to see you die. His hands match Teen’s, the room vibrates, smoke on the ceiling working its way down.”
Daria steps up, her hand on Lead Dog’s chest, it crumples like old newspaper, his eyes reveal utter disbelief, a victim of over confidence.
Janah is in Teen’s face, which is twisted in a snarl unbecoming of a young lady, so much for being Queen of the Spring Cotillion. Janah touches her neck, her head rolls off, blood gushes up and over her torso, she melts to the wooden floor.
Sprinklers go off dousing us and the rest of the room.
Daphne, “How convenient, a shower reward for our efforts. Perhaps time to move along kiddies.”
Down to the cars, we leave in three directions, wind up at the hotel, meet up in my room.
Janah is looking over McKenzie, a chest full of bruises, “On the couch, lie on your back, time for the deep freeze. Ice from the machine in plastic bags, she stacks them on Mac’s chest, examines her mouth. She reaches in and pull out a molar.
“Going to need an implant,” holds her fingers over the wound, cold Qi to stop bleeding and inflammation.
Daria is examining Akiko, “You are good, help Janah with McKenzie.”
Akiko holds her palms against McKenzie’s cheeks, I slide a pillow under Mac’s head. She falls asleep.
Zoe C, “You good Daphne?”
“Never better thanks. Dasha?”
“Light bruise only, ees gud, how about maybe vodka?”
I get the bottle from the freezer, “Excellent idea,” fill glasses with ice, pour the cold vodka, pass glasses to the twins, to Zoe C and one for good old me. Daphne doesn’t drink alcohol, Janah’s a wine girl, I open a red and pour her a glass.
McKenzie is stretched on the couch, Akiko seated next to her hands still chilling Mac’s cheeks.
Zoe C, “Will she swallow blood?”
Janah, “Not bleeding, all sealed up. Order an early plane, tonight is rest, tomorrow home. Daphne will make an appointment with our dentist, by the end of the week McKenzie will be good as new.”
Daphne, “Sorry you guys didn’t get game but the experience will make us better for the next round. I was going to get Lead Dog tranquilized so we could torture a few answers out of him, but the sprinklers intervened, another time perhaps.”
Zoe C, “Except for McKenzie getting hurt, doesn’t bother me. I was glad to be gone, a few more minutes with that asshole and I’d have shot him anyway.
Any thoughts on how the girl got so good.”
Janah, “Only speculation but I suspect she was raised in it, Shadow parents, or taken by a Shadow when she was young and he or she saw aptitude. Next time, and there will be a next time, we take hostages and dig down hard until we get answers.”
“They heard about you from someplace.”
“Yes, and whoever told them is going to be looking for us.”
“After what happened I’d think they’d stay as far away as possible, even cut down activity for a bit.”
“Not how Shadows think. In their world, they control, they aren’t controlled. We’re going to be on their hit parade for the foreseeable future, which for us is forever.”

Seventy Six

Elle collects us, drops Daphne and entourage at their place, then home. Zelda and Cilia greet us, earn required pats and scratches then across the room and out the patio door.
Natalie, “Interesting trip?”
“Nobody died on our team, McKenzie took a few hits but Janah and Akiko fixed her up. Did you get the appointment?”
“Daphne texted me, tomorrow first thing. The dentist does Daphne’s family, cleanings and such, nobody there needs other work, although Chloe told me she got braces years ago, but that was in New York. Considering the dentist here in Malibu got twenty eight patients from Sylk, she’s got clout and gets to the head of the line.”
Natalie turns to McKenzie, “Let me see, I know you’re okay but I still have to do the mommy bit.”
Mac pulls up her shirt, all natural McKenzie.
“How in hell do they do that? Were the bruises significant?”
“Black and blue, and Janah stopped bleeding in her mouth, Akiko helped with cold Qi. Surprised she didn’t get frostbite, but McKenzie slept from the time we got to the hotel until this morning. She burned a pile of energy, as did Janah and Akiko. Hard to say with the twins, I think they’re made of steel. Dasha picked up a grown man and threw him down not one, but two flights of stairs. I’m a big guy, I’d have had a hard time lifting a two hundred pound man over my head…twice.”
Natalie shakes her head, “Damn. I would have been up all night worrying but Elle distracted me with a bottle of wine and sex.”
“Maybe we could chase Shadows more often.”
She smiles, “You do enough dangerous stuff already, my sex calendar is quite full without shipping you off to kill assholes.”
Zak races in, Mickey right behind, “Chef! Everybody home? Everybody okay?”
“McKenzie and Akiko need a day of rest and a bit of pampering, that’s your job, you too Mickey. Read, find something on Netflix, Amazon or HBO. No strenuous activity, a walk around the property after tea…and no questions.”
Zackary, “Got it. Chess is too mentally taxing, Go is out of the question. Mik and I will find movies, what’s for lunch?”
Elle, “Tomato bisque and grilled ham with cherries, sugar free cherry pie filling to be exact.”
“Yum, so good.”
“In an hour, beat it and take care of your sisters.”
I go to my room to unpack the suitcase, put away toiletries, when I get back to the kitchen-living area, McKenzie and Akiko are on the mat in front of the couch. Mac is using Zelda as a headrest, Akiko gets Cilia. Burma is stretched out in-between. Mickey and Zak are behind them laying side by side on the couch. Some movie is playing, I lean over and recognize Kill Bill. Our kids aren’t much for costume dramas, certainly not typical kid shows.
The day waddles along, Mac and Akiko napped after lunch for a couple of hours, Mickey and Zak were up and down off the couch for a bit, then they fell asleep as well. Natalie wakes them for tea, too much nap and it’s up all night.
After Zoe C clears the tea cups and utensils, I decide a Chef’s night off is a fine idea and tell McKenzie I’m going for fried chicken and coleslaw.
“You and Akiko hike the perimeter with Zak and Mickey, get the blood moving, is your mouth sore?”
She shakes her head no, I get her to open up and peer inside with a mini-maglite. 
“Just an empty spot, brush but take care with that spot. Tomorrow you go to get it fixed.”
Another nod, Akiko comes along with Zak and Mik, they head outside for a little warm California sun surrounded by two colossal dogs and one insane cat.
I go to the office, Elle said she and Zoe C would make the dinner run. I hadn’t checked the website since before out trip to Lubbock. Three nothing complaints I delete, nothing suggesting Shadow activity, one suggesting Mr. Right has revealed his true colors as Mr. Wrong.
Message: you are last resort husband abusive at least no kids cant take much longer petrified to go to police he will kill me and sister
This looks real, no punctuation, typed in haste, it came last night so not much time has passed…I hope.
Reply, ‘details, his name address, make-model of vehicle, license plate. Place of his employment (we do not contact employers for any reason) your privacy guaranteed.’ I tap the send key, now wait.
Nothing else to do in here, I decide a park on our patio with a beer has merit, so I earn my merit badge. From my vantage point I can see the hikers going along the ocean side. They stop and sit on the boulders, one of the best spots to enjoy the ocean.
Nat comes out with two beers, perfect timing, the tide has gone out in my glass.
“Thank you, saves me from getting off it.”
“You looked peaceful, maybe a little contemplative.”
“Nothing deep, a cross between a message on the site and the beauty of the children together down the hill.”
“I see the children, didn’t see the message.”
“If it’s real, and it appears so, another abuser, another woman scared to death.”
“You have to travel again?”
“Waiting on detail, don’t know where she is yet, also thinking of asking Daphne about Katya and Katja, they have experience.”
She sits, crosses elegant bare legs, I do my part and admire. She pretends to study the ocean, but the smile on her face tells me I’m ogling correctly.
Kids get up and make their way up the hill surrounded by their guardians. If most parents kept an eye on their children as well as Zelda and Cilia, maybe so many wouldn’t go missing. In fairness, most parents have nowhere near the resources we do and certainly don’t have a lighted double fenced compound and twenty security cams with monitors all over the house.
A stop at the pool shower, rinse dog paws, then take their own showers. Wrap themselves in big towels, collect their clothes and dump them in the laundry room. I briefly wonder how Daphne’s crowd handles laundry for twenty eight, then I remember they have bots that are smarter than the average human, which doesn’t take much. Still, they look human, just better behaved, well Grace B, modeled on Chloe Grace Mortez’ character in Kick Ass, has a mouth to match.
Eloise calls, “I have your bot ready, when can I come over and walk her through the house and grounds?”
“Tomorrow would work, McKenzie and Natalie are off to the dentist in the morning, do you need all of us here?”
“Not necessary, if you introduce them, the bot will remember.”
“Does she come with a personality?”
“I named her after the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, which I understand is also Natalie’s company name. She is designed to be serene, calm and efficient. If the name is problem it can be changed, the bot doesn’t care what we call it.”
“Did you run it by Nat?”
“Texted her, she said she was flattered, that the corporate name doesn’t come up much around the house.”
“Hardly at all, go with it.”
The girls come in with buckets of KFC, I have the oven ready and spread the pieces over the baking pans. I found baking racks which sit on little supports and allow the convection to pass over and under whatever I’m warming or cooking. 
Elle, “KFC is higher priced than the supermarket, but look at the size of the pieces, I didn’t know there were chickens that big. Maybe they give them steroids.”
Zoe C, “Cocktails, fried chicken is a beer thing, there’s also sauvignon blanc.” Three vodka rocks, olives in two, splash of cranberry in one for Elle.
We sip cocktails on the patio, then McKenzie gets up and goes in with Akiko. They return with a platter of chicken, bowl of coleslaw, dishes and utensils. Lots of napkins and warm moistened wash cloths, beer in frozen mugs.
Zak, “Wow, I love fried chicken,” he chomps on a leg, Mickey puts a fat spoon of coleslaw on his plate, then hers, passes it to me.
“Eloise is coming over tomorrow with the bot, I forgot to ask who is coming with her. The bot needs to be acclimated to our house and grounds, it could take several hours, we need something for lunch.”
Zoe C, “Just make pizza, everyone likes it and they don’t need to sit and be formal, just grab a slice from the oven when you want it.”
“Perfect, McKenzie is going to the dentist in the morning, she won’t have time to organize lunch and we’ll be engaged with the bot off and on.”
Zak, “That is so cool, can I get a seeing-eye bot?”
Mickey, “For a blind kid you see too well now.”
“I don’t know exactly how they work, do they have a limited domain, like the house and grounds, or can they adapt to being someplace unfamiliar?”
Elle, “We can ask Eloise tomorrow, I recall Daphne telling me they took one traveling, it must have done something in a different environment. I live for algorithms, well, for the family first, then algorithms. The bots are self teaching AI mostly. They don’t sleep, they can spend all night walking around picking up data points.”
“Ah, of course.”
What a world we inhabit, levitating girl, twins that can lift a Humvee, a million volts of Qi power among them, a true to life samurai, two Shaolin priests, a hardware genius, famous actress and equally famous novelist and film producer, just for starters.

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