One

It takes me a second to process, a man is slapping the crap out of a kid. The girl can’t be much more than seven. At first I didn’t catch that she wasn’t cringing…or crying…or even holding her hands up to deflect the blows. He has her by the hair, slap with the palm, again with the backhand, back and forth, repeat, repeat.
Split lip, bloody nose.
I grab his wrist, twist his arm behind his back, dig two fingers of my left hand into his windpipe…hard.
He gurgles, tries to turn.
‘Let the girl go or I crush your trachea.’
Gurgle, hoarse grind, I don’t want him to talk, nothing he can say will appease.
Instead, I dislocate his shoulder, smash his face against the stone wall. He scrapes down, a lovely blood trail of teeth and snot. I start to kick his ribs, realize he’s unconscious. Probably not the best example for a kid who’s just been whipsawed.
She’s looking up at me, face red, bloody nose, lip swelling.
‘Who’s he?’
‘Nobody now.’
She has a point.
‘Take you home?’
‘He’s at home, with his girlfriend. She hits me too.’
‘You got a name?’
‘Zero.’
‘That your real name?’
‘It is now.’
‘Want me to call a cop, social services, a relative?’
‘No. I want to go with you.’
‘Okay.’
‘Are you a perve fuckup?’
‘Nope.’
‘Is that your car?’
‘Yep,’ my Acura NSX is parked by the gas pump.
‘Nice, a hundred ninety miles an hour, three seconds from zero to sixty, a hundred and sixty thousand…let’s go.’
My first clue, she isn’t just a kid.
My place is a refurbished warehouse surrounded by concrete, there’s grass in back, I don’t go there much, it grew a few inches and gave up, but it’s green and seems to stay that way most of the year.
Remote opens iron gate, closes when I pass through. Second remote opens the roll-up door, drive in, door rolls down. The warehouse is concrete block, filled, a block wall separates the garage from the interior, metal door opens when I punch the keypad to the left.
Inside is one big room, three thousand square feet, painted concrete floor, half of which is covered with interlocking martial arts mats, no windows. The only enclosed room is the bath, no tub, big dual head shower, twin sinks. There’s a water closet so technically there are two enclosed rooms.
One wall is kitchen, the usual appliances, granite island with a couple of stools. Bed is against the other wall, my simple wardrobe hangs on a rack on one side of the super king bed. 
No TV, I am wired, I do use the internet, a laptop, couple of tablets, my phones are buy and fly. If I need GPS, I use the tablets.
She walks the place, plops on the couch, a giant leather thing with end tables and two ottomans. Big ones, the kid could sleep on them.
‘Wash up, I have gel packs frozen, stick a couple on your face, they will relieve the pain and keep swelling down.’ 
She lays on the couch freezing her face for fifteen, ‘That’s enough, want aspirin?’
‘No, the gel things helped.’
‘Hungry.’
‘Sure.’
‘I keep fruit and stuff, protein bars in the refrigerator. Coke Zero, or tea, help yourself.’
She gets an apple, pulls a Coke from the Sub-Zero, parks on one of the island stools.
‘You cook?’
‘I can, but mostly bring stuff home, prepared things, roast chicken, deli meat for a sandwich. Nothing special. Have any favorites?’
‘When they gave me food, it came in a paper bag.’
‘Fast food.’
‘Yes, kid burger, fries, crap.’
‘I keep eggs, bacon, ham, got frozen biscuits or toast for breakfast. Sandwich for lunch, bring something from the market for dinner, like I said.’
‘Better than what I got.’
‘Go to school?’
‘No.’
‘You can read, write, do any math?’
‘All of it.’
‘Where did you learn?’
‘Internet.’
She finishes the apple, ‘Toss it in the sink, garbage disposal will chew up the core.’
‘This is a nice place, looks like an ordinary building outside, inside you have good things, expensive, that refrigerator is ten thousand dollars, sofa is real leather, flat screen on the wall. I need to pee.’
‘Go for it, if you want a shower, take one. You can use one of my t-shirts, leave your jeans and whatnot on the floor, they need washing. I’ll show you how to work the machine.’
She hops up, goes in the bathroom, I move to the couch and surf the news. I hear the door to the water closet shut. 
A minute later, I hear her ask, ‘Show me the shower.’
I go in, she’s naked, doesn’t seem shy, I pretend not to notice, explain how turn off one of the rainfall showerheads, there’s also a shower wand. Soap is in hand-pull dispensers, shampoo, bath gel, one for conditioner, but it’s empty, I don’t use conditioner. Bath and hand towels stacked in an open bin.
‘This is a giant shower.’
‘Yeah, I’m a pretty big guy, and since the shower is inset deep, no need for a shower door or curtain, less to clean.
While she showers, I open a new toothbrush and lay it next to the second sink I seldom use.
‘Toothbrush by the sink, toothpaste in the drawer.’
‘Okay.’
I fetch one of my XXLT t-shirts, I like modal fiber, no wrinkles, soft.
‘Shirt on the rack, brought a pair of socks too.’
‘Okay.’
I’m pouring vodka over ice, splash of cranberry, the not from concentrate kind, no sugar, nice and tart.
She pads out, hair still wet, my shirt hangs to her ankles, white athletic socks peek from underneath. I get a brush, put her on the other stool and brush her hair out. She’s blonde, white blonde. Platinum I think they call it, whatever, it’s pure white.
‘You have healthy hair, even with a diet of fast food.’
‘Thanks, never had anyone brush it for me.’
‘I’ll get you a new brush tomorrow, and clothes, you can decide what.’
She turns and looks up at me, hint of a smile. I haven’t had this much kid interaction since I was one.
‘How’s the lip?’
‘Good.’
‘For dinner, maybe scrambled, you like cheese?’
‘Yes.’
‘Okay, scrambled with cheese on toast, tomorrow I’ll get more groceries. I’ll show you the washer and dryer, you’ll have something to wear tomorrow, then we’ll pitch it, looks worn out.’
‘You have a job?’
‘Sort of, independent contractor.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘I work for myself.’
‘Doing what?’
‘Conflict resolution.’
‘Like when he was hitting me?’
‘Like that, yeah.’
She appears to think this over, then, ‘Teach me.’

Two

The first few days are shopping, she learns the appliances, the lights, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Doesn’t have any favorites, loads up something and watches it. 
Our conversations are basic, go out to eat or eat in, she finds yoga stuff on YouTube. 
‘You are flexible, not everyone can do full splits, front and side. Can you do a handstand?’
‘Show me.’
I do one, walk myself a few feet.
‘Want to try?’
I start by holding her feet, slowly release until she can hold it for a few seconds.
‘You have good balance.’
‘Proprioception.’
She stands, raises one leg over her head, perfectly still.
‘Impressive, you taught you?’
‘Me, I saw it on YouTube. Girls doing all sorts of gymnastics.’
‘You want to keep it up, I use those martial arts mats for my practice, you can do tumbling or whatever on them. I would take you to a class, but I think it’s better if you keep a low profile for now. People will be looking for you maybe.’
‘Probably not, glad I’m gone is more like it. But I would rather do it on my own.’
‘Up to you, I won’t make you do anything, but I’ll help if you want.’
‘Okay.’
‘We’ll do more cooking at home, I know a few things, we can get ideas on the internet and follow recipes. Other times I’ll get something from the market.’
‘Show me, I’ll learn and do the cooking.’
‘Sometimes I have to travel, for work. You need to make sure you know how everything operates, you will be here by yourself. I’ll leave a phone, call me if you need to know something, you see the fire extinguishers, and there’s a sprinkler system. Turn on the vent when you cook, sucks the odors and any smoke up and out, not inside.’
‘I will, if there is smoke from cooking, it could set off the detectors.’
‘Right, good catch.’
‘Can I travel with you?’
‘Maybe later, after you have a routine. My trips are short, I won’t be gone but a day or two.’
‘You resolve conflicts quickly then.’
She’s sharp.
‘It’s usually pretty obvious what the problem is, people can’t see it because they’re caught up in it, they aren’t objective.’
‘What’s objective?’
‘People pitch their positions without considering what the other side may be thinking or feeling. They are subjective, only see their side. Objective is looking at it from a distance, not personal.’
She nods, goes to the bathroom and strips, I hear the shower come on. A few minutes later she comes out wrapped in one of my mega towels, hands me her hairbrush and climbs on the stool. I sip my drink and brush, simple. I kind of like it, glad she wants me to do it for her.
‘Do you want me to get a door for the shower, give you a bit of privacy?’
‘No, I don’t mind you seeing me. You aren’t going to rape me.’
‘No, I’m not,’ I haven’t asked about any sexual abuse, she hasn’t mentioned it and I see no point, primarily because she isn’t body shy, cringing or trying to hide. 
For the first few nights, I gave her the bed and slept on the couch. Then I woke up one morning and she was curled into me on the couch. I used to sleep nude, obviously that had to go, I sleep in bamboo fiber pants and t-shirt. She has a few nightshirts and she likes wearing socks.
‘You sleep with me, the bed is huge. I like the heavy blanket.’
‘Weighted blankets got popular, it feels cozier, and I think I sleep better.’
‘I do, plus there’s no drunk people yelling all night.’
‘I can yell a little if you want.’
‘Don’t be an idiot.’
I laugh, she grins, then full on smile, nothing like a child’s wide open smile, even with a missing tooth.
‘My tooth is growing in, I lost most of my baby teeth, that was the last one.’
‘Show me.’
She does.
‘They look straight, so far no need for braces or whatever.’
‘Too bad, I’d be adorable with braces.’
‘You’re adorable now Zero, I suppose we could get braces just because.’
‘Only if I need them.’
‘Ever been to the dentist?’
‘No, I’m careful about brushing, flossing, you got me that sonic brush, I use it three times a day.’
‘I’ll get you an exam, just to do it, I don’t see any obvious cavities, but I’m not a dentist.’
Now that we know her sizes, I let her shop Amazon when she needs something. I thought she might load up, but she didn’t. She bought two short dresses she calls shifts, lightweight and clingy, one black, one white. A half dozen modal fiber 
t-shirts she wears around the house. A pair of wedges, nail polish, a Mason Pearson boar bristle hairbrush like mine, and books, non-fiction, neuroscience and philosophy.
‘Are you sure you’re a kid? Where’s the pop music?’
‘Do not much care for music, except binaural beats, trance sometimes.’
‘Ah, is that what the Bluetooth is for, the earbud?’
‘Yes, can I play it over the sound system?’
‘Give it a go, if it annoys me, I’ll say so.’
Turns out I like it as background noise, she doesn’t crank it, she does her yoga routine, has the handstand down and can even take a few hand-steps. Then she fixes us lunch, generally sandwiches. We eat, she takes a nap, then is up reading curled up on one end of the couch.
I bring her a green tea with sucralose, she says we should keep sugar to a minimum. I go with it despite her being a rail with arms. There is muscle along her thighs, curvy calves and a yoga butt evolving. If she carries any fat it remains well hidden.
‘I need to travel tomorrow, be back the day after, you good?’
‘Yes, but only one night or I will be traumatized and need years of therapy.’
‘Uh huh.’
‘You have to text or call me at least twice a day.’
‘Yes ma’am.’
She returns to her book, doesn’t ask where I’m going or how I resolve a conflict in less than twenty four hours. I treadmill for five miles, cool down with a glass of cold water. All the water is filtered, skips having to buy bottled and haul from the grocery to the house and stacking up plastic.
I shower, when I turn to get a towel, she hands me one. I don’t freak, dry and hang the towel over the rack. She doesn’t leave, sits on the vanity stool I never use while I do deodorant, brush my teeth. I go to the main room, pull on casual pants and a t-shirt, I seldom wear underwear.
‘I don’t wear underwear either,’ she lifts her t-shirt, bare as a babys butt.
‘Well, you aren’t shy.’
‘It’s silly, people are so weird about nudity.’
‘An American thing, see a half a breast on TV, they act shocked and start with the moral pronouncements. If people were moral, they could all go nude.’

Three

I wake, Zero is in her spot, back up against me, during the night she pulls my arm over her, other than that, she doesn’t fidget, neither of us snores.
I have coffee, Zero toasts an English muffin, swipes cream cheese on it, hands me half, takes the other half for herself.
‘I need to get to the airport, you good with everything?’
‘Yes, remember the rule.’
‘Call or text, I need to keep the phone from dinging, so only call me if it’s an emergency. I don’t want the thing going off while I work, but I will check regularly for messages.’
‘I understand. I’ll be fine, kiss me.’
I snag a soft cheek, she turns the other, kiss that as well. Drive to the airport, my plane is waiting. I fly private, Blue Sky. They don’t scan luggage, or me, just drive to the parking lot, twenty yards to the plane, board, take off.
Flight is two hours, I’m scheduled to return tomorrow at three, but with Blue Sky I can get that changed easily. They can have a plane ready in four hours or less. They even arrange a rental car, this one a sedan, Acura Inquisition. It has a built in mother program that asks annoying personal questions and offers loads of advice. This one is grilling me about why I’m not married yet and what about children? I don’t reply, turn the switch to shut it off. As it closes the voice says ‘call your mother’.
The Inquisition is more a car for a twenty something girl, first time away from home, choking on a clerical job, no boyfriend, and three cats. There’s another model for married guys, it has the nagging wife program and it can’t be turned off.
I heard that one time, the program asked the driver, ‘Do I look fat in this dress?’
When the guy said yes, the car shut down and wouldn’t start until he bought flowers and a tennis bracelet.
It’s noon, I skip lunch, get coffee at a drive through and find the target’s place of business. 
I spot his car, my temporary employer sent me the car details, business address, home address, target’s name and physical description. It’s all done on the dark net, payment to a bitcoin drop box. Contact transfers the money in with a digital key, fifty thousand, I have the other key. Neither of us can touch the money until the conflict is resolved. When the contact sees the job completion, he enters his key, I enter mine, the money can only go one way, to my bitcoin account.
My account swaps bitcoin for cash, the money is sent to a shell, bounced around until it winds up in one or another of my business accounts. Flying private is pricey, after expenses I wind up with just north of forty thousand.
The advantage of my work is that the target has no clue I’m stalking him, or her, I’m a gender neutral assassin. 
I wait in my rental, waiting means nothing to me, put another way, waiting is working. Actors, for instance, sit around until time for their scene, then wait while the director decides if it’s satisfactory. They get paid to act, they get paid to wait, it’s the same paycheck.
I text Zero, ‘you ok’
A minute later, ‘good had lunch took a short nap reading now’
‘should be home tomorrow, maybe even earlier than expected, conflict not resolved yet, but it looks straightforward and may finish up this evening’
‘call before you go to sleep’
‘will do’
Target appears at six, exchanges a few words with another departing employee, gets in his car and heads home. He stops at a supermarket, back out in fifteen, into the car. 
Now he drives home, parks in the driveway, steps out with two plastic bags and moves to the front door. I come up behind him, he fiddles with keys, opens the door.
I put a nine millimeter in his brain. Hollow point does its job, breaks up in his head. I use a load that ensures penetration, but not clean through. Unlike movies, there’s no brain and skull spatter out the exit wound, there is no exit wound. I turn and walk down the block to my rental, get in and drive to the hotel after picking up a roast chicken and a bottle of vodka.
Make a drink, call Zero.
‘Hey, I am returning earlier, be in around noon.’
‘Okay, I will have lunch ready, what are you doing tonight?’
‘Got chicken, eat in the room, catch a movie on one or another channel, go to bed, exciting guy huh?’
‘You can anticipate seeing me tomorrow.’
‘Hope I can handle that much visual stimulation, what are you up to?’
‘Made tomato soup, slice of ham, going to eat while I watch a movie, knock back a couple of vodka shots.’
‘Very funny.’
‘Seeing if you are paying attention, you passed.’
‘Got things locked up?’
‘This place is a fortress, I feel totally secure, even more secure when you are here. I like to think of you as my bodyguard bestie.’
‘I’m honored.’
‘Of course you are, I am a precious jewel, your precious jewel.’
‘Don’t get a fat head, but I confess, it’s true.’
She giggles, ‘Call me in the morning, not a request.’
‘Yes ma’am.’
‘See to it, goodnight.’
We disconnect, damned if I don’t miss the little Hitler.
I wonder how she would react if I explained my work. She was on the receiving end of violence, probably happy if I had offed the man instead of rearranging his face and dislocating his shoulder. But she didn’t react to being slapped and backhanded, nor react when I took care of her tormentor. Since the incident, Zero has shown no sign she is distressed, just the opposite, she makes small jokes, cogent observations, is clear, not confused or ambivalent. Unlike what I would think about most abused kids, she’s not ashamed. I don’t know if she’s a bit of an exhibitionist, or she simply doesn’t mind being seen nude. When she saw me in the altogether, she took a look at the man part, didn’t focus on it, nor make any comment.
Another curiosity, she didn’t ask where I was traveling to, no questions about my work, conflict resolution could mean anything. 
She’s seven, she knows her birth year, month, and day. She never asked how old I am, zip about my childhood, where I grew up or my parents. Mine were killed in a car crash, part of my wealth is from the settlement, but I was headed to boot camp when it happened, I wasn’t a child. I did the Ranger thing, part close contact and part sniper duty, came out with a list of kills and not much conscience.

Four

Morning phone call, she made it through the night without burning the place down. In from the airport, I hit the remote, gate opens, then garage door. Before I’m out of the car she’s at the door, races up and jumps into my arms.
‘Missed me huh?’
‘I cried all night.’
‘Liar.’
‘An exaggeration for effect, yes, I missed you, no little mouse creeping next to me in the bed.’
‘I piled pillows alongside and pretended it was you.’
‘Flattery will get you presents.’
‘I have your Amazon account, I can get my own presents, kiss me.’
Double cheek, soft, she smells of soap, lavender. She got a specialty bar from Amazon, the stuff in the dispenser is more neutral, not girl soap I guess.
‘I didn’t have anyone to brush my hair, is that even legal?’
‘Your arm broke?’
‘You like doing it.’
‘Busted, I do.’
‘Hungry?’
‘Hungry enough, got something made?’
‘Tomato soup from yesterday, I added cream to make it tomato bisque, grilled ham and cheese, which I still have to grill, but the soup is simmering, you can start with that.’
‘Been surfing recipes?’
‘Yeah, tonight will be pulled pork and stuffed baked potatoes, grilled mushrooms, sour cream and clarified butter.’
‘You made clarified butter?’
‘It is simple, stick of butter in a Pyrex measuring cup, Simmer on low covered with cheesecloth, real low. In a couple of hours much of the water has evaporated, what is left is a smoky rich butter. Strain it through more cheesecloth, refrigerate until firm, then it can stay out. It gets soft for spreading. We will probably die of clogged arteries.’
‘You tracked all this down on the web.’
‘There are zillions of recipes, I am making a list for the grocery. I discovered cooking is fun, orderly, use good ingredients, follow the recipe. I like the step by step process. I play my music while I cook, dance to trance.’
She dances. I’m not a dancer, but even I can tell she has moves, little butt hip shake, head this way and that, her long hair undulates like her hips.
‘You gonna take up pole dancing?’
Her little hips circle while she circles, looks at me over her shoulder, coy smile, ‘You never know.’
No, I’m not that perv, don’t get ahead of yourself. I have zip experience with little girls, I can read though. General consensus is little girls love attention, they experiment with their allure which can be misinterpreted as a desire for sex. Adult males must juggle the difference between being receptive, so as not to shoot down a girl’s flirtatious explorations, and the appropriate way to be attentive.
Put simply, while the sign says keep off the grass, there’s nothing wrong with admiring its pretty green color.
Put differently, in the main, children are beautiful. Nature makes them that way so we don’t kill them off as competition for resources. That doesn’t buy a pass to trod on the grass.
‘Want to take a dance class? Meet other kids interested in dance?’
‘Nope, I do it because it pleases me, I don’t need to please a dance instructor, or other kids. I have tons of things to do here anyway. Are you trying to give yourself a break from me around all the time?’
‘Don’t be absurd, your presence is a joy, and I don’t do much joy, you are the exception.’
She grins, ‘Somehow, I knew that, I know that a little more every day. I am the Queen Bee, you are my loyal drone worker bee. This is working out splendidly.’
‘So it seems.’
While we talked, she finished up my grilled ham and cheese, slices it diagonally and puts it on the island.
‘This is good, what made you think of adding tomato and grilled onion?’
‘Flipping through sandwich sites, one added onion, another tomato, I did both. Cut me a slice.’
I cut a half in half, hand it over.
‘Wow, better than I imagined even. I can crank these out again sometime.’
She lifts he cover on the crock pot, stirs it a few turns, ‘Pork is getting there, be ready for dinner. Now for a nap, come along, you can wrap me up lucky man.’
Queen Busy Bee is asleep in minutes, I don’t so much sleep as zone out, that twilight between asleep and awake, it’s refreshing.
I give her an hour, slip out for a pee, when I return she’s sitting up.
‘That felt luscious, what time is it?’
‘Three and change. Want coffee…tea?’
‘Tea I think, green maybe.’
She rolls off the bed, scoots to the bathroom, I cross the room to the kitchen area, heat two cups of water. Find tea bags and drop them in cups.
We sit at the island and sip.
‘I’m learning to code, pretty soon I’ll be hacking bank accounts and stealing millions.’
‘Good to have goals.’
‘Let’s have a self defense session.’
‘Okay, roll out the heavy bag, lower it to your tummy, put on your gloves.’
I got her martial arts gloves, not boxing gloves, they are protective to the extent she doesn’t scrape her knuckles raw when she punches.
‘Horse riding stance, fifty punches, straight out. Remember, hit with first two knuckles, wrist straight with the back of your fist. Twist your hip with the punch.’
She whaps it for fifty. Naturally she can’t much move the bag, it’s seventy pounds, heavier than she is. But she will develop power over time, right now speed is more important. Like physics, F=MA, she has little mass, she can make up for it by acceleration.
‘Okay, now uppercut, you remember?’
Fifty uppercuts. The point is to develop muscle and tendon strength, and focus on proper technique until it’s habituated.
‘Good, remember the front kick, cock you knee, push your foot out and connect with your heel. It’s a pushing kick, to make an opponent back off, damage the gut or sternum. A sharp heel to the sternum hurts, fifty alternating left and right.’
She can bounce the bag a bit with kicks, good sign.
‘Nice, remember the roundhouse? Raise the kicking leg, twist your hips and kick at the same time. The twist adds power, but you need to twist and kick together, twist then kick loses the momentum. Ten right foot, ten left, back and forth until you have fifty on each side. Quick now, no stopping.’
She’s huffing when she finishes, I hand her a glass of cold water, ‘Drink it all sprite, then sit for a minute and catch your breath. Same routine every day, every other is okay as well. Sundays we do nothing.
She nods, ‘What next?’
‘Stand up.’
I get behind her, pin her arms, ‘What do you do now?’
She stomps my foot, right on the arch, simulates it anyway, then elbows out shoulder high to loosen the grip, raise arms, drop and slide out of the grip. We repeat a dozen times.
‘Okay, big guy has you in the air, can’t stomp his foot, what do you do?’
‘Distract him by wiggling, reach behind me and try to find his eyes. Any eye poke will help, if I can get both hands behind me on his throat, push my thumbs in as hard as I can. If my arms are trapped, bite and try a backward head butt.’
‘Excellent. And carry a concealed knife, not a folding knife, in a scabbard fastened to your ankle, unless you’re in a dress, then your waist under the skirt. If you can get to the blade, cut anything you can reach.’
‘I don’t have a knife.’
‘I have a few, you can pick one later. Now, get on the treadmill and set it to a run, not a jog. Go as long as you can, no TV, no music, no distractions. You want to feel it, go until you can’t then go another minute. In your mind, it’s life or death, not a pleasant jog in the park.’
She does it, legs trembling when she dismounts, but she pushed herself hard.
‘Lay down, I have liniment.’
I massage her feet, ankles, and thighs with the woodsy stuff, ‘pull off your shirt, I’ll do shoulders and arms.’
‘Is this the pervert part?’
‘Yes.’
She giggles.

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