Nine

By lunchtime we’ve drawn a blank. Stop at an empty lot next to a small strip center. Mac gets out and takes Zelda for a hike. There’s a convenience store, I go in to shag Cokes, bottled water, power bars and a bag of beef jerky. When I return Zelda is emptying a water bowl.
We climb in, “Figured Zelda might like a snack,” hand the jerky to McKenzie, pass around the cokes and protein bars.
She flies the drone while Zoe C drives, I’m nibbling a dark chocolate protein something and eying the streets. Bathroom break at three, back on duty. 
I’m wondering what time to throw in the towel for the day when McKenzie says, “There,” she reaches over the seat and shows me the tablet with the video feed.
“Pull over Zoe C.”
We watch a ten year old Ford, Tarus I think, do they make any sedans that aren’t Tarus? I know jack about Fords.
It’s creeping along, stops a half block from a woman on the sidewalk talking on a mobile, she taps it and slides it in her pocket. The Taurus moves forward, slows, stops. The car’s passenger side is nearest the woman, we watch her stare at the car, lean forward, the passenger door opens, she gets in. She’s an average thirtyish, no provocative clothes, neither dressed for attention, nor dressed in homeless chic.
To anyone observing, it appears to be a woman getting a lift from someone she knows. There’s no struggle, no raised voice, the kind of thing you could be seeing from the other side of the street and forget about a minute later.
Zoe C, “Do we call Chief?”
“No, it could be innocent. Follow the car, keep your distance. Mac, how much time left on the drone?”
“Ten.”
I look at the battery charger, the backup is at eighty percent, we could squeeze fifteen or twenty out of it. Not worth the trouble, if he gets up to speed, the drone won’t be able to follow anyway.
“We have the license plate?”
Mac, “Yes,” should have known, McKenzie is nothing if not focused, she’s not going to forget details.
“Bring in the drone, you need to land it on the fly, I don’t want to have to stop and risk losing this guy.”
Zoe C opens the rear hatch, McKenzie flies the drone to just behind the Tahoe, then inside. We have the rear two rows folded, Zelda needs the space. The drone eases in, Zoe C clicks the button, the hatch closes.
He heads down highway 429 to 22, then left to 16, fourteen miles to a pothole called French Settlement. 
“Back off a bit, there’s jack here, I doubt we can lose him.”
Zoe C, “These places are nothing but swamp and bayous, if I wanted to dump a body, this is as close to perfect as it gets.”
The target makes a left on a near nothing road, asphalt but barely, just enough to keep from getting stuck in the mushy ground.
“Not too close, he can’t go anyplace. Mac, fly the drone so we can see where he stops.”
Hatch open, drone out and up, she tracks him just as he’s stopped in front of a wooden shack, weatherworn as one might expect in this hot humid climate, lots of rain, the occasional hurricane. Other than needing a coat of paint, the house appears sturdy, there’s a wooden porch in decent repair. 
Both doors open, the woman steps out, the man around quickly. He takes her elbow and guides her to the porch. 
Zoe C, “She doesn’t look drunk exactly, more like someone who’s had a couple and is being cautious.”
Mac hands me the drone controls. She and Zelda slide out the back and head down the road.
Zoe C, “What’s she doing!”
“She needs a direct visual, I wouldn’t worry much, the beast is with her.”
“Still, I’m going backup…with a Glock.”
“Fair enough, I know we say it all the time, no shot without a clear line of sight.”
She gives me her ‘am I an idiot?’ look.
“Reminders don’t hurt, get going, I’m recording from the drone.”
As the man and woman start up the steps, the man turns suddenly, sensing a problem. He sees McKenzie, Zelda to one side, Zoe C hangs back but I can see through her eyes, she’s to the side behind an oak tree, got a bead on the target.
He shoves the woman in the house, she stumbles, he slams the door shut, turns and studies McKenzie.
“Well, well, a little girl and a big dog, whatcha doin’ out here all alone?”
She’s twenty feet from him, stock still, Zoe C and I can see he’s bemused but not concerned.
“What is it? Dog got your tongue?”
He actually giggles, starts towards her, hesitant, eye on the mastiff. He gets within ten feet.
“Say, come inside, I’ve got tea, snacks, you hungry little lady?”
No reply. 
His attitude flips, fake smile morphs to sneer, “Look kid, you’re coming inside, and don’t count on the mutt, let me show you.”
His hand raises, a shimmer of energy from his fingers towards Zelda, McKenzie steps in front of Zelda. Halfway to the target there’s actually a spark and smoke as the two forces collide. McKenzie did nothing visible, it’s like she’s surrounded herself with an energy shield.
He’s nonplussed, his face a question mark, confused.
“You are one of us.”
“No, you are Black, a Shadow.”
Eyes narrow, “Kid, this is going to cost you and the dog, I like fucking with kids, back off or face ugly consequences.”
Mac fires a blast, hard shot to his gut, he folds, doesn’t go down but he gasps, “Fuck, you ain’t bad kid,” raises his hand again, big mistake.
Zelda takes two quick steps and launches herself, his wrist firmly in her mouth, more than firmly, there’s blood as she yanks his arm to the side and forces him down.
As he cries out, his free hand moves towards Zelda’s head, this puke’s chock full of stupid, McKenzie blows a hole in his hand. Geez he sure can scream.
Before Zelda can eat him, Zoe C is there, “Back her off.”
“Kaihō.”
The mastiff releases the wrist drop and backs away a step. Her eyes never leave the target, a low, serious as death growl as she stares down at her capture.
Zoe C puts the Glock to his temple, “Up, slowly, or your brains go all over the bayou.”
“I got no hands.”
“Like I give a shit, she kicks him in the side, get the fuck up,” she cocks the hammer.
He figures out how to stand, right hand dripping blood from the hole, left wrist dripping down the other side. He’s lucky, Zelda could have snapped clean through but she didn’t get a kill order from Mac.
I join the party, tell McKenzie, “You and your friend keep him under control, if he tries a Qi shot, kill him.”
Zelda growls charges and knocks him flat. One giant paw on his chest, she snaps at his face, mouthful of sharp teeth, she drools down over his nose.
Zoe C and I go inside, the woman is cringing in the corner, dazed as if she isn’t sure where she is or why. At least she’s otherwise unhurt.
Zoe C, “Sit there, help is coming.”
The woman’s trembling, rocks back and forth.
“She’s in shock,” we find a pillow and blanket, lay her on the couch and cover her. She stares at the ceiling.
This isn’t basement country, the ground is too moist, it floods. Dig a couple of feet, the hole fills with water. The place looks normal, old house, creaky floorboards, shotgun style, which means a single hallway to the right, the front room leads to the next room, a bedroom, bathroom, to the next, a kitchen. Behind the kitchen is a door, obvious it’s a relatively new addition. It’s locked, not for long, I kick it in. Wish I hadn’t.
Zoe C, “Aw man, why? What’s the point?”
There are five bodies chained to a scaffolding, bludgeoned to unrecognizable. There are clocks everywhere, the kind that tick-tock, no digital quiet. Since there were seven missing until today, two must have been taken down and replaced. A trip into the swamp, roll the body into the water, the gators and birds take care of the rest.

Ten

Our target is still resting uncomfortably on the grass out front.
“McKenzie, the woman inside, can you make her sleep?”
She climbs the steps, Zoe C follows, they come out in two.
Zoe C, “Amazing, hand on head, fade to unconsciousness.”
“If we ever have trouble sleeping, we know who to see.”
I’m a big guy, six four, two twenty, twenty five if McKenzie makes lasagna for dinner. It’s easy to drag the man, a squirt of five-five or six, weighing about what a fresh bag of Zelda’s dog food does.
I look at McKenzie, “Get his attention.”
She supplies a jolt, his body shakes, it seems not to be painful so much as amphetamine-like. He’s looking at her, eyes wide, now he knows fear, no more attitude.
“Tell me everything or the girl turns up the volume.”
He spills in rapid fire, I’m recording. The summary is, he got it in his head to collect bodies to practice energy projection. It must have been horrid, the bodies we saw were painted in purple-yellow bruises, cuts and punctures.
I ask about the clocks, and the attempt at making a clock from the abduction points.
His reply might make sense to him, “Time is the most valuable commodity, every second, minute, hour is a precious moment never to be experienced again. I’m surprised you figured it out, the locals were too stupid.”
I shrug, it’s not something that would occur to most people. Unfortunately for him and most fortunately for his future victims, he’s not going to outsmart anyone again, nor torture people for his amusement.
He starts to go into his childhood, smaller than most boys, picked on, bad mommy or daddy. It’s boring, and been pleaded by so many others.
I turn to Mac, “You want this, or shall I let Zoe C shoot him?”
We’ve avoided calling each other by our names, not even Zelda, but he’s not going to be identifying anyone about anything.
McKenzie lays her fingers on his forehead, he shout’s…, “Nooooo,” then blood appears in his eyes, flows down his face and drips from his ears. 
Zoe C, “Can I shoot him anyway?”
I grin, “Not good, they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what killed him, a bullet simplifies their lives. Internal hemorrhaging in his head, with no visible mark of a weapon will keep them busy.”
“Good point.”
“McKenzie, the only bit left is altering the bite marks on his wrist, the police saw Zelda, we need to cover her tracks so to speak.”
She charges up, zaps his wrist, now it looks like a few deep scratches and nothing like a bite. 
“Time to exit the scene. Zoe C, get us to the hotel, we’ll grab our stuff undo the disguises and go to Baton Rouge. I’ll arrange for a plane. The locals have the make of our rental, probably the plate, but it’s all in a shell corp name.
We only did simple stuff, just enough to confuse. Mac wore a watch cap and had thick black frame glasses with a mild grey shading. Zoe C kept her short hair under a hoodie and used a Goth effect makeup, plus a fake ring in her nose. Mine consisted mostly of fat aviator sunglasses and a bit of temp hair color, a silver grey that gave me ten years. Our clothes were so ordinary and loose that body type is a mystery. 
Zelda went as Zelda. Which gives me a thought, the Tahoe was rented in Baton Rouge.
At the hotel I rinse my grey out, the girls change, I call for a flight but not from Baton Rouge.
“I booked a plane from the New Orleans airport, we turn the car in there, if the cops here decide to look for us, they’ll see the Tahoe rented in Baton Rouge and assume we’ll return it there. By the time they figure out what’s what, if they do, we’ll be at home or at least in the air. Flight’s at nine tonight, four hours to home, pickup two time zones, get to LA for eleven-ish.”
We drive the fifty miles to Louis Armstrong, flying private we need only pull up next to the plane, they’ll call the rental company to collect it.
Zelda’s had big day and flops to the floor in front of Mac’s seat on the plane. Zoe C and I have wine, we sit and sip, no conversation, don’t read, don’t watch movies, just chill. McKenzie makes it an hour fiddling with her tablet, then she’s asleep with the tablet in her lap. Zoe C gets up, adjusts the seat to sleeping position and covers her with a blanket. Zelda wakes and watches, anything going on with McKenzie holds her attention. When Zoe C returns to her seat, the mastiff does a careful sniff check to reassure herself that Mac is okay, satisfied, resumes her nap.
Home thanks to Elle, Nat stayed with Mickey and Zak, both in bed when we arrive. Nat takes sleepy McKenzie upstairs, Zelda and Cilia take a tour of the property then shoot up the steps to their respective bedrooms, Zelda to Mac, Cilia to Zak. An hour and a large vodka later, we’re down and quiet. I’ve got Natalie enveloped, I sleep better that way.
Morning, mid-morning, I blink awake, Nat is elsewhere, I rouse myself, Natalie comes in with a fat mug of coffee.
“Here you go, Zoe C just got up, McKenzie’s been in the office playing stock market. She was there when I got up at seven.”
“She slept most of the flight, so did Zelda. Zoe C and I stared out the window at black nothing with the occasional lights of one city or another below us.”
“Mickey and Zackary get antsy when you guys are gone. They spent a couple hours stick fighting, must have circled the property a dozen times, Cilia will be happy Mac and Zelda are back, the two kids were wearing her out. Even Burma would come in and collapse in her tree, she didn’t even play attack.”
“You talked to them.”
“I listened to them, they didn’t ask what you were doing, but they knew it was dangerous. A stream of consciousness, mostly to each other, reassuring themselves, ‘Zelda will protect McKenzie, Chef will protect everybody, Zoe C wouldn’t let anything happen to McKenzie’, like that. It worked okay, in the evening Mickey and Zak lay on the mat holding hands with Cilia as a headrest. Totally sweet.”
“You cried.”
“Shut up.”

Eleven

A week of merciful quiet, kids are kids, there’s some screech and racing around. Zak may be blind, but around here you’d have to know that, can’t tell from watching him. He doesn’t wear blind glasses and his stick stays leaning against his bedroom wall unless we go off property, which doesn’t happen much.
They don’t appear to care about the beach, actually going down to it. Content to sit on a big boulder and enjoy the surf far below. 
Zackary can see through Mickey’s eyes, be in her mind like I can with Zoe C. Another reason blind has no meaning. He ‘sees’ what she sees when they tune in.
“Do you see in color Zak?”
“Yep, Mickey had to explain the colors, tell me the name. If she’s looking at a red sweater, she says ‘red’, same for other colors. Sometimes the objects are grainy or only an outline, but I get the idea. It’s harder with TV. If I stay tuned too long I get a headache, so I mostly stay out of her head and listen.”
“Wait…the girls swim nude…do you…?”
He grins, “Don’t ask, don’t tell. Mickey is trans, so I know she has a penis,” he laughs, “at our age it isn’t much. I don’t see the big deal about naked people, no deal at all in the family.”
“Good, I’d be depressed if the adult girls started wearing swimsuits.”
“Me too.”
We laugh at our silliness. 
McKenzie can get in any brain she decides to, but she seldom does. McKenzie’s world is not ours, her wavelengths have more length and, I presume, intensity. She’s thriving quite remarkably without us grilling her on this or that capability. Mac does most of the cooking, or at least shares the job with me, she reads numbers across a screen and makes bets on stock prices, she never loses. Those trades are blips, she’s in, a few minutes later she’s out, it’s not an investment strategy, she has no idea what companies the symbols refer to, or that they are companies at all.
It’s nearing lunch, we decided on grilled fish with lemon butter, fat fries and purple cabbage with shredded carrots with tahini dressing.
The girls wander in, morning was spent swimming and diving, I expect naps are in order after lunch.
Elle, “Grilled fish, a nice lunch touch, what are those, the filets are huge.”
“Catfish, hangs together well on a hot griddle, more heft to the meat than trout.”
“Will one of you make that New Orleans thing one Sunday? With the poached egg.”
“Sure, we can have a fish fry on Saturday, keep enough to make Eggs St. Charles on Sunday.”
Elle, “I truly love living here, so much talent, I feel like an underachiever.”
Zoe C, “Honey, with those legs, you don’t need to achieve jack, but your algorithm is cranking along successfully, staying ahead of the market.”
Elle grins, “I’m having a heck of a time doing shorts, it gets maybe half right, but the other half are a bust.”
“The market is biased towards the upside, shorts are like the craps player who bets don’t pass. People feel jinxed when someone bets against the number.”
It’s a lovely Malibu day, we take plates outside, bit of white wine accompanies a gentle breeze and seventy five degree weather.
Natalie, “I don’t want to get too conversationally heavy right now, but later, perhaps with tea, McKenzie can talk about the book I saw her with, Living Nonduality. What is it?”
We look at Mac, she’s finishing up a forkful of catfish, nods an affirmative. We return to lunch delicacies.
“Somebody makes the best fries, a crunch followed by fluffy soft inside.”
“My duty today, but Mac found the recipe and tweaked it. The trick is to fry them twice, once on three twenty five for three minutes, then out to drain, raise the oil temp to three seventy five, fry again for four minutes. That gets the extra crunch on the outside without over cooking the inside.”
Zackary, “Cilia stopped at the same spot two days in a row, Zelda was gone, she did it again this morning, Zelda was there, she sniffed around and growled.”
“Was Mickey there?”
Mickey, “Yes, the ground was disturbed on the other side of the fence. I had to look close, there’s the steel rail fence, then the smaller fence to keep Burma from wandering off, but I could see the dirt had been moved, like someone digging.”
“Did you review the cams?”
“Yeah, but it was at night, there was motion but not easy to tell if it was a person or an animal.”
“I’ll look into it, show me the spot after we’re done with lunch. I’m not too concerned, those rails go down four feet. An animal is never digging that far and a human would likely get discouraged. They’d need a serious shovel, probably a pickax, and it would take hours in that dense ground, it’s mostly rock.”
Zoe C, “Elle and I will clear, take a hike and see what’s up there.”
Mickey, “Actually down there, the spot is on the downside of our mountain.”
Natalie, “What’s down there then, and get going, I have plans for Chef this afternoon.”
I paste on my best idiot grin, “Won’t be a sec, let’s go boys and girls.”
I follow Mickey and Zak, naturally the two gigantic dogs aren’t going to miss anything, our gang of five heads down, it’s less than a half mile.
“I see what you mean,” examining the spot, “you got it right, and it doesn’t look like an animal digging, not with paws anyway.”
We return, “You have the video handy?”
The security electronics all feed to the office, Mickey hits play, the relevant segment is already lined up since the kids looked at it earlier.
“Right, too dark to tell much, a shadow doing nothing, then a bit of activity, like he’s grabbing the railings. I didn’t have motion detectors out there, there are too many critters, we’d have lights going on and off half the night.”
Zoe C is watching with me, “Does that matter? The bedrooms are upstairs and all of them have blackout shades and curtains, lights going on outside wouldn’t register.”
“True. Let’s have floods installed on the fence line. Don’t know what I was thinking, we have exterior house lights,  some are on all night, others when they’re tripped by motion. That seldom happens unless an owl or some big bird flies through.”
“I’ll get on it.”
Up to my room, Natalie’s waiting, nude, sitting up in the bed brushing her hair. 
“Wow.”
She smiles, “Thank you, now get over here and meet my needs.”
I do, first orally, then long loving straight up sex. We aren’t much for ‘positions’, it isn’t a yoga class. If people like it upside down, good by me, not our thing. She likes slow strokes until the tingle begins, I can sense her shift, pick up the pace until we both shiver and shake.
Natalie, “Good boy, excellent even, now hold me and let’s snuggle-nap.”
She’s full of great ideas today, maybe there’ll be time for another go before tea.

Twelve

We’re at the patio table with cups of green or black. McKenzie made flourless chocolate cookies, fabulous. They’re pretty simple, powdered sugar, cocoa, egg whites, vanilla extract. Today she included chopped walnuts.
“Cookies are splendid Mac, thank you for thinking of it.”
“Zackary.”
“Then thank you for giving her the idea Zak.”
Elle, “McKenzie, can you tell us a bit about nonduality? What does it mean?”
“We see things as separate from us, or ourselves separate from them, that’s duality, I’m this, you’re that, I’m looking at the ocean, which is separate from myself.”
“And it isn’t?”
“It ignores the question of how all these things arose in the first place. There has to be an energy, an underlying ground that is unchanging and without any particular purpose or intent.”
“So you don’t mean God, or some greater intelligence.”
“No. Some of the nonduality teachers use the word God, but not in the sense of a man in the sky. They also call it the Absolute, the Supreme, even the Self with a capital S. Using God brings too much baggage, people have preconceived notions about God which only serves to further muddy the already muddy water.”
Zoe C, “So what do you call it?”
“Calling it anything makes it sound as if it is something separate, duality again. I use Qi, or sometimes spelled Chi, pronounced chee either way.”
I jump in, “I’ve heard of Chi as a martial arts term, they call it life force, also an energy that one can gather and use to add focus and power.”
Mac, “There is the energy, they didn’t make it up. The difference is, it isn’t something to gather, it’s something we already have. Qi is everywhere and contains everything, or put another way, everything is Qi, and because of that, there can be no separation in Reality, capital R.”
“What about the reality of this table, the pool the ocean or the sun?”
“Nothing temporary, which is everything we can see, touch, feel, is real. It appears real because we, in our short lives, bring these things into existence via consciousness. Some sages use Consciousness, big C, instead of Absolute. Both Consciousness and Absolute seem too vague. Energy I can understand, thus Qi. Although in the end, it doesn’t matter what the label is.”
Natalie, “I have to let this sink in. You take all we know and say it’s not real, I’m stuck there.”
“The ego, what we mistakenly call our self, gets in the way. The ego is tenacious, it can’t bear to be dismissed and throws up dozens of distractions to protect itself.”
“Is the ego real?”
“No, a delusion.”
“If I cut myself, I bleed, is that a delusion? It hurts, if I don’t take care it can get infected, it eventually heals unless I ignore it.”
“The cut happens, the medicine comes, it all happens on its own, there’s no you making it happen.”
Zoe C, “It seems so real, I’m bleeding, it’s a fact not an illusion.”
“Of course, while there is a body there will be feeling, pains, joys, boredom, and there will be bodily functions as it takes care of itself. It does all that without needing a you, there’s no you for it to need. There’s no doer, things happen as they will.”
Natalie, “What about free will?”
“Another illusion perpetuated by the ego.”
We’re quiet for a time, the other children haven’t asked any questions, just listening silently.
I ask, “What about you Mickey, Zackary, what is your sense of it?”
Zackary, “Don’t ask us, we’re not here either.”
The adults burst out in laughter, Elle says, “You mean to say you know what she’s talking about?”
“Yes, we’ve talked many times on our ocean viewing boulder, at least until we woke up and understood we are what she’s talking about, all of us, Zelda, Cilia and Burma as well as you guys, the rest of the planet and beyond is all Qi.”
Elle, “Is it cocktail hour yet?”
Zoe C, “It is now.”
She and I go in and breakout wine, a sturdy Chianti seems right. Zoe C sets out glasses, I bring the bottle and pour. The kids get their splash of red and seltzer.
The dogs stand and stretch, head up the mountain for necessities, Mickey fills the two water bowls we keep by the outdoor shower. Their dinnertime was before we got into the discussion. Burma is content to stay parked in Mickey’s lap, she rolls to her back and paws Mickey’s hand, the signal to scratch her tummy.
Natalie, “That cat has you well trained.”
Mickey, “No different than how you trained Chef.”
I laugh, “She’s been observant.”
Natalie crosses one elegant leg over the other, “Haven’t heard any complaints.”
“I may be an illusion, but I’m not crazy, whatever you’ve been doing, keep doing it.”
Mickey giggles, “See?”
We stop the conversation here, as I explain, “The adults who haven’t heard this before might be better off letting it settle and picking up the conversation in a day or so.”

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