One Hundred Sixty Nine

On leaving, we break into pairs again after deciding to walk to the big stadium. No events going on, we’ve crawled the Quarter, no hint of Shadows.
Zero, ‘Wonder if they moved on again.’
‘Could be, Shadows are impulsive, why their brains break in the first place, going for the result, Qi control, without the self-control to do it safely.’
We circle the dome, saw it flying in, from the air it looks like a giant zit.
Zero, ‘It occurs that the Shadow’s activity here is at night, we may be stomping around pointlessly.’
‘True, maybe we get everyone to the hotel, we’ve walked all morning and then this.’
Texts rounds up the rest, we return to the hotel for showers and nothing.
‘There are a few music clubs, on the other side of the Quarter, across Esplanade, let’s tour them tonight.’
Zero, ‘I doubt Alice can get in.’
‘You or one of the twins can go in long enough to survey for Shadows, I’m thinking more stroll the surrounds. Even if the Shadows create a problem in a venue, they have to leave at some point.’
‘I’ll have the hotel send up nibbles around six thirty, or do you want more of a dinner?’
CC, ‘A cheese tray, maybe smoked salmon if they have it.’
We lay around like alligators in the swamp, catch a bit of news, CC manicures Alice, the twins drill them on Russian for a while. The food comes, I sign at the door, hand the waiter a twenty extra and roll the cart in myself.
Zero, ‘Yum, count on a first class hotel to have first class cheeses, fresh crispy crackers, toasted rounds, the salmon is nicely chilled, and with capers.’
CC, ‘Aside from strolling the music scene, you have any other directions?’
‘No, seat of the pants, just don’t get caught with yours down if we spot a Shadow, there may be others lurking. Once one of the girls sees one, don’t converge, spread out, in pairs, like our walks today.’
‘We start firing Glocks in the city, even suppressed, it’s going to create mayhem when the bodies fall.’
‘Yes, glad you brought it up. Remember, Shadows don’t know us as different from any citizen. That means once you know it’s a Shadow, you can get close. Use a knife, if we get one alone, then the gun.’
Zero, ‘We need a lethal drug for our future Shadow hunts, shoot a dart, no blood like a knife, no noise like a gun.’
‘I doubt I can lean on acquaintances for poison, Ketamine is one thing, it’s not deadly, cyanide is a death sentence.’
Natasha, ‘I can look up alternatives, might need a bit of equipment.’
‘Good, do your research and order what you need.’
Life was simpler when we just shot people.
Eight o’clock, time to roam, we pair up as before and make our way on separate streets to the back of the Quarter, cross Esplanade, then down a block to the nightclubs, two are for listening to live music, one venue has both live and dance music. Our three pairs stand in the vicinity of the three clubs, two are within a block of each other, the third is closer to the river side.
Zero is with me, she goes in, I wait, she’s back in five, ‘A mix of tourists and locals leaning to tourist. No Shadow anyway.’
First sets are generally around eight, then the second set at ten, first set crowd comes out around nine thirty. If there’s a Shadow she doesn’t spot him.
Text from CC, she’s with Natasha, lively crowd, no Shadow, then she calls, ‘Nikita spotted one outside the third venue. She and Alice are following, you can pick her up on GPS, she’s live mind to mind with her sister.’
Zero hands me the phone, ‘Which way is he headed?’
Down Esplanade now, down as in away from the river, it passes under an expressway, then it’s partially restored residential, the rest leftover mess from the hurricane or empty lots.’
‘Keep your distance, Zero and I are going to hustle to, let me see, Claiborne Avenue, it runs under the interstate for a stretch, it crosses Esplanade. Pay attention, it’s a dicey area. And stay on the phone until we get a better idea of what the Shadow is up to.’
Zero and I get to Claiborne, Esplanade is one block over. The area under the interstate is concrete and nothing, the other side has a couple of minor businesses, chicken joint, convenience store.
Zero, ‘I can’t tell if there’s a Shadow from here.’
We go halfway towards Esplanade, a man crosses Claiborne then under the interstate, the other side is also Claiborne, he crosses that, heads into the residential area.
Zero, ‘What kind of houses are these?’
‘Called shotguns, one hallway to the right or left, living room, bedrooms, bath, kitchen all in a line down the hallway, the saying goes you can shoot a bullet down the hallway and out the back door without hitting anything. Shotgun makes little sense as the pellets would spread and hit something inside, but that’s what they call them I assume because they’re doubles, like a double barrel shotgun.’
‘It appears the city has made substantial renovation progress.’
‘Yeah, last time I looked half the homes were falling down, and a bunch of empty lots. ’
CC is on the line, ‘He’s entered a house, Natasha sees no other Shadows, Nikita checked in, nothing near them, she and Alice are approaching from the north side, they circled a couple of blocks, no Shadow.’
‘Zero, you go down one side, tell Natasha to take the other, we don’t have the listening device, see what’s what, and go stealthy, a couple of windows are open. Nikita, CC and Alice should come here, Natasha can relay what she sees directly to Nikita.’
While Zero and Natasha do the sneaky, the rest of us park on the front stoop of a house across the street, two doors down. It’s got a for rent sign, otherwise dark and empty.
Nikita, ‘Sister ees on side wiz window, Zero went to back of house. Sister sees two Shadows een front room, nothing in bedroom, she ees going to rear wiz Zero, there will be a door and window for the kitchen….wait…Zero checked house next door, three Shadows een front room.’
‘Any talk?’
She holds up one hand, I shut up.
‘Sister says they are argue about next steps.’
Zero appears, then Natasha.
Zero, ‘At least they don’t have any victims inside, haven’t taken any minds home to play, humiliate, torture.’
Natasha, ‘The three I saw were arguing about us, not specifically us, they were arguing about someone trying to kill them, two references to our activity, but other references we had nothing to do with.’
‘Someone else is killing Shadows?’
‘Must be, and one time they killed five, five who thought they were setting a trap for their hunters.’
Zero, ‘The ones I heard were arguing about whether to pull off another stunt here, or move on and where to go, there was a third in the kitchen cooking.’
‘Then our speculation was accurate, and new information, there’s more us someplace.’
Natasha, ‘They used the word Shaolin several times, whoever the others are, some of them are monks.’
‘Remember Zero’s book about a Shaolin monk turned assassin?’
Zero, ‘It has nothing to do with Shadows, mostly vigilante stuff, but it’s a weird coincidence. Back to the matter at hand, what now, Commandant?’
‘We aren’t moving here, kill them all, as quickly and quietly as possible. Stick the suppressors on, the sound may not even reach the street. Zero, Nikita and me, house on the left, rest of us on the right. Are the back doors open?’
‘Left is, right no.’
‘Okay, first, shoot the easy targets, ones you can see from a window. There’s only a screen, right?’
‘One of us stays at the front door. I doubt escape will occur to them, Shadows don’t usually run, but these have heard stories about people successfully hunting them, they may decide to bolt and fight another day.’
‘Who takes the front?’
‘I think Alice and I. One final bit, as Alice and I are in front, the rest of you will wind up going in the back. If you’re going to shoot at that point, be damn sure you hit the target, we don’t need to dodge stray bullets.’
Nikita, ‘Eef necessary, shoot for legs, a knee, eef you miss, bullet will anyway go to floor.’
‘Alice, same for you, remember, the girls will be coming up from the rear.’
‘I won’t shoot unless it’s clear, probably not at all,’ she pulls out her blade, ‘a swipe across the femoral, stab the torso, swipe the carotid.’
Girls move off, I take the left house, Alice the right, we don’t need to be stealthy, any second now there will be chaos.
The suppressors do their job, I can hear a quick whisper, then lots of crash boom bang inside. I’m tempted to kick in the front door, twist the doorknob, damned if it isn’t locked. I push the door open, standing to the side. Zero comes up.
‘All done, got two from the window, left one inside, she was stirring a pot, but turned to the sound of falling bodies, Nikita finished her. What about CC and Natasha?’
We scoot out the front, next door should have been simple, everyone was in the front room. CC hit one, Natasha the second, the third managed to use a body to shield himself until he got to the front door, yanked it open, dropped the corpse and turned to run.
That’s when Alice did her one two three, femoral, gut, carotid, holding the double serrated Gerber Silver Trident as she’s been instructed, blade down, cutting edge facing out, razor sharp six and a quarter blade, sushi’d the Shadow, or maybe sashimi’d, there was no rice involved.
Alice is wiping the blade on the Shadow’s shirt, slides it back in its resting place, scabbard hooked on her waistband, ‘That thing is super sharp, went through clothes like nothing, glad he was dressed, the cut didn’t spray, his pants are mostly blood. Can we go home tomorrow? I miss the kids, Morshchiny, Zoe and Fin too.’
‘Start walking, we chewed up a couple miles from the club to here, and another mile to the hotel.’
It’s near midnight when we get in, good to have to walk, it settles any leftover tension. Cocktails around, Zero calls the airline.
‘Flight at eleven, we can sleep in, food on the plane, with time zone change, we get in around one. I’ll text Zoe our flight number and estimated arrival.’

Chapter One Hundred Seventy

Always best at home, girls hug, giggle, Morshchiny actually looks happy, her face is always a dignified blank but her tail gives her away.
Zoe, ‘Zero said you had food on the plane, do you want a sandwich? I put together a few finger sandwiches, chicken salad, ham, roast beef.’
She pulls a platter from the refrigerator, they look inviting, we eat because it tastes good. CC recaps the trip, brief, mostly to compliment Alice and her death blade.
Misha, ‘Alice is awesome,’ she swipes her hand in the slice, stab, slice motion, screeching a Hee-Yah! with the imaginary carotid cut.
Micha, ‘We have a request.’
‘What’s that?’
‘A request is politely asking for something.’
‘Got that part, want do you want?’
‘A pool, one big enough for laps, and a diving board.’
‘What’s everyone think?’
Zero, ‘We have enough ground for a flipping water park, a pool sounds rather nice.’
‘I’ll find a pool contractor, wouldn’t mind doing a few laps myself, thank you Micha.’
And that’s how, two months later, we’re either lapping, diving, or just getting a bit of sun on the lounge chairs. It’s a half Olympic more or less, ninety feet long, forty five wide, depth from twelve feet to four. A one meter board, thought about a high dive but the girls weren’t interested. They dive well enough for no training, primarily because of the hours on the trampoline. The pool is mostly for laps, six marked lanes. We use ladders on the side of either end, steps down to the shallow would interfere with laps.
We don’t have races, no competition, why Americans have to push every activity into a race to see who’s first, best, fastest, is lost on us. Even at the shooting range and adjoining tracks, concrete oval or the dirt track, it isn’t about first, second or third. It’s about fun, about reflexes, about serenity at speed.
The girls train hard at home, sparring I mean, our mixture of aikido and ground fighting. Misha and Micha go at it hard with each other and Alice. In a fair fight with an adult, they would lose. We don’t fight fair, we fight to survive and to make sure the opponent doesn’t. Except for the two youngest, all of them can kick me in the head, which means over their heads. Bodies are solid, hard, flexible as a rubber band.
Natasha, ‘After our last rip, Shadows must be staying under the radar.’
‘Word got around maybe, our trip wiped out six, we didn’t even give them a chance to show off, which doesn’t hurt my feelings, none of us got a scratch or a bruise.’
‘I doubt they are done, their idea of drawing us to them wasn’t well thought out. We can sense them, but they don’t sense us, even using one of them as bait, how would it help them locate us?’
‘They thought there was a Shaolin involved, apparently they can sense Shaolin, even if the monk is in ordinary street clothes. Zero says it’s because Shaolin have used Qi for centuries and the original Shadows were monks who got greedy and pressed too hard, shorted too many neurons, left them with broken brains.’
‘We need to find a Shaolin temple, a real one, not just a Gung Fu school. The old ones may have insight into Shadows we do not. As you say, knowing the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses is half the battle.’
‘You and Zero reach out, take Alice, a demonstration of telekinesis might add cred.’
‘Any suggestions as to approach?’
‘Upfront and transparent, monks won’t buy bullshit, find an elder, tell him or her what you want and how we can help.’
Zero and Natasha spend a couple of days tracking down Masters. There aren’t that many real temples in the States, the number of Americans who will seek entrance to a temple that requires full time commitment is a short list.
They try the big cities on the left coast, then flew to San Francisco to meet the head of a temple there. A few Disciples and Masters live there full time and the Master in charge, convinced they are sincere, called a temple in New York. 
I fly out with Zero, the twins and Alice, we arrive after check in, so straight to our suite in Soho. Chinatown, where the Shaolin Temple is located is a mile or so away, buried in the back of the Chinatown maze of streets.
Our first night we did a bit of schlep around the area, found a deli, brought back a nice hunk of brisket in gravy, a loaf of French bread, soft cheese, vodka and a bottle of red.
I heat the brisket, cut the bread into thick rounds, toast them lightly. The suite has a dining table and full kitchen, overkill probably, there are something like eleven thousand restaurants in the city. It’s a good thing we’re filthy rich, nothing is cheap in Manhattan anymore.
Nikita, ‘What time are we expected tomorrow?’
Zero, ‘After lunch, we ask for Master David.’
‘Doesn’t sound Chinese.’
‘He’s not, the original Masters came from China years ago, but time did its thing, they passed on. I was told to visit a restaurant for lunch, Fong’s, one of the Masters, who is Chinese, married a Chinese girl from the area, now they run a couple of restaurants, we ask for Chan, his wife’s name is Ning. I think we’re being vetted before we gain access to the temple.’
‘Cautious then.’
‘Smart too, they don’t know us, they know only that we inquired about Shadows.’
‘So they know about Shadows.’
‘Didn’t say, I get the impression they don’t say lots of things. We would never have gotten this far if we hadn’t gained some cred by going to San Francisco.’
Travel tired, we are in bed by ten thirty, then I’m up for seven, Nikita is fiddling with coffee, there’s a single serve machine with both coffee and tea available.
‘I haf order breakfast for seven thirty, dish of schrambled wiz smoky salmon, cut fruit, bagels wiz creamy chiz, ees Zero up, Natasha and Alice are feenish dressing.
‘Yeah, she was stirring, be around in a minute.
Breakfast arrives, I do my bit, meet the waiter at the door, give him money, sign the tab and take the cart in myself.
Alice, ‘This is good, simple, but hot stuff is hot, salmon chilled, so is the fruit.’
Natasha, ‘What do you want to do before we head to Chinatown?’
‘Not much time for tourist, like visit museums, or go to Central Park. Maybe just walk the area, stores for shopping won’t open until ten, you guys don’t shop much anyway.’
Alice, ‘I want to get a couple of things for the kids, but I can do that afterwards.’
Zero, ‘I’ll find a restaurant for this evening, probably should make a reservation.’
We head out at ten thirty, pass a few Soho shops, nothing of much interest, trek further south through what used to be Little Italy but has become more Chinatown than Italian. At quarter to twelve, we search out Fong’s, the place is already near full.
‘Must be good, most of the customers are Asian, and they do a substantial takeout business, there’s even a separate area for pickups and deliveries.’
A small woman bustles over, ‘Welcome to Fong’s, table for five?’
‘Actually we’re here to meet with Chan, are you Ning?’
Brilliant smile on a pretty petite woman, ‘Ah, yes, husband is expecting you, this way please.’
Follow to a table by the register, one man occupies it, he needs his own table, when he stands I see he isn’t tall, five eight or nine, but he’s wide, not fat wide, like a brick, a big brick.
I introduce the girls, he bows to them, shakes my hand. I have big hands, his are my size despite him being six or seven inches shorter.
He indicates we should sit, Ning drags over a couple of extra chairs, then asks if we want to see the menu.
‘We all like hot and sour or won ton soup, any entrée involving shrimp or chicken, garlic or Schezuan sauce’
‘Be up in a minute.’
Chan is impassive, reading us, he points, ‘This one called Zero, she can read auras.’
I nod, it wasn’t a question, he points to Alice, ‘This one has something as well, she can move matter with her mind.’
Nod again.
He looks at the twins, ‘Russian, there are Russian twins in our family, our family was put together by my Abbess, Janah.’
‘I understood the Abbott at the temple here is your son, David.’
‘Master J will always be Abbess, she and her extensive family moved out west, David consults with her regularly.’
‘Out west where?’
‘They have a home in California, Malibu.’
The girls laugh, I explain, ‘We live in Malibu, incredible coincidence.’
‘Not coincidence, when you called David, he called Master J, she said to have you see me. We and others are part of that family, but some of us remain in New York.’
‘Ah, you are the gatekeeper.’
‘In a manner of speaking, Janah can take care of herself, but her family is…insular, they have no use for society, although one woman is well known, but not for anything Shaolin, she was a model, then in movies.’
Alice can’t resist, ‘Who, would we have seen her movies?’
‘Perhaps, her name is Chloe Sylk.’
Alice, ‘New to me.’
‘Not new to me, she made the Ultra Violet series, incredible talent with the katana.’
Zero, ‘Action movies then.’
The soups come, one spoon is all it takes, ‘This is delicious, we eat a lot of Chinese, this is in a different league.’
‘Ning will be happy to hear it.’
The entrees hold the high standard, ‘I see why the place is crowded, plus the takeouts have been a constant flow.’
Chan shrugs, ‘Most of the recipes are from the original owner, Mrs. Fong, unfortunately passed. We cannot let her legacy diminish. But to the matter at hand, Shadows.’
‘We understand Shaolin have a difficult issue with them.’
‘They kill us when they can, we reciprocate.’
One Hundred Seventy One

Chan, ‘If you are finished, we can walk to the temple, better to discuss the subject there.’
We follow Chan through the winding streets of Chinatown. The building doesn’t look Chinese, or like photos of Shaolin temples, no pagoda or red roof, from the outside it looks like a warehouse. There’s a service alley, the main entrance is two slabs of heavy oak that open in, and do so mysteriously as we approach.
I can’t resist asking, ‘How did they know we’re here?’
Chan, ‘Ancient Shaolin secret,’ he holds up a cell phone, Zero and Alice laugh, the twins aren’t laughers, occasionally we get a half smile.
We’re greeted briefly by Disciple Jin, a female with a bald head; across the expanse, there are a lot of bald heads, right at the moment sparring or practicing with weapons, long stick, nunchucks, in one corner monks are throwing shuriken into a board…from at least twenty five or thirty yards away. Nothing stops because of us. We move along past an office that adjoins what must be a dining hall, wooden tables and benches that have the shiny sheen of long use.
Chan ushers us into the hall, a monk brings a pot of tea and cups. 
Chan, ‘This is my son, Master David,’ he introduces each of us, David bows, it’s not a handshake place, we bow in return.
‘Thank you for taking time.’
David, ‘Our great pleasure, although the topic is less pleasurable. I understand you have experience with Shadows,’ he looks at Zero when he says it, not me, good for him, he’s not biased.
Zero, ‘Yes, Three of us can read auras, the twins are particularly good at Shadow auras, black as dark death, they can catch the sooty residue Shadows leave behind. We actively search for them, or I should say, for news stories that make little sense unless there is mind control at work. Natasha is good with surfing multiple news sites, looking for them, or any behavior patterns that seem unusual.’
David, ‘We welcome any help or insights you may have.’
‘Our experience is limited, what we have noticed is they stay low key, nothing fancy in dress, transportation or housing. They can be male or female, they sometimes band together but not often. We were lured into attempts to trap us twice, fortunately we figured it out beforehand, but we’ve taken a few injuries along the way.’
David nods, ‘You have an advantage, they see you as simply more civilians, don’t sense you like they do a Shaolin.’
‘So far anyway. If I could offer you a Shadow repellant, I would. As I understand it, they originally learned Qi control from the Order, then got greedy for more before their minds were ready. Now they appear to be training their own.’
David, ‘Yes, most unfortunate. At least they leave gung fu students alone, they don’t read them as monks, which they aren’t. Most temples train outsiders, it’s how they support themselves. Our temple is self sufficient, in part due to our Abbott. I am Abbott, but I refer to another, far more advanced than I.’
‘Master J Chan said.’
He smiles, ‘She is a wonder, as is her companion. They lived here for years, then went out in the world for a time. They have many responsibilities, most of which require them to be elsewhere. For Master J, it is a necessary sacrifice, her heart is in the temple, life requires more of her.’
‘We would very much like to meet her.’
Chan, ‘It turns out they live in the same area of California.’
David smiles, ‘Master J has accumulated a sizable family, some twenty girls, although she started with her companion, the others came along over many years.’
‘She is not young then, none of my business, curiosity.’
‘She has been twenty five for the last fifteen, she met her companion when they were eight.’
‘Ah, they don’t age, we have something in common besides Shadows.’
David, ‘So it is, you appear to be twelve, thirteen.’
‘I’m sixteen in years on Earth, Commandant would be mid thirties, but he’s not. The twins would be near twenty, but stopped at fifteen or sixteen, birthdays are vague.’
David, ‘You are our version of Master J then.’
‘I have a lot to learn. Fortunately we have no need of employment, Commandant made that possible. We don’t go to school, we learn at home, our girls, there are four more at home, came from ugly situations, we were able to fix that.’
‘Master J’s family is much the same, but I sense a difference in…how can I put it…’
‘You need not fear insulting us, except for the two children, we’re all psychopaths. However, we channel our homicidal urges with other projects. One reason Shadows have difficulty with us is that they can’t take our minds, our psychopathy cancels theirs.’ 
‘Then you have other outlets, not just Shadows.’
‘Abusers, physical or sexual, child rapists, the list of opportunities to fix what society won’t is endless.’
He doesn’t inquire into what we do exactly, probably prefers not to know.
David, ‘Would you like to see the rest of our home?’
We would, and we do. Behind the training area is the meeting and meditation hall.
‘Formal meditation is at six and six, for an hour, in the evenings some monks remain sitting for another hour or more. The temple used to use candles, until Master J took over, she modernized us and won the thanks of student monks assigned to get up in the middle of the night and replace them, also the garden which required smudge pots until she had solar panels installed, our temple uses no public utility power.’
We approach the gardens, a monk comes over, ‘Welcome, I am Manolo, student of Master David for botany, biology and chemistry. It’s spring, you can see the buds poking up, we grow our own herbs for medicines and tonics, plus tomatoes in summer, behind that are citrus trees, oranges, lemons, limes. The flower beds to the left are for the beauty, and some of the flowers have medicinal use.’
He takes us to what appears to be a chemistry lab, stainless steel pots and pressure cookers, rows of beakers, test tubes, and burners, tongs, spoons, knives other utensils neatly arranged hanging from one shelf.
Natasha, ‘This is similar to what I was thinking about Commandant.’
David, ‘You have chemistry experience?’
‘No, learn as I go.’
He smiles, ‘We always do our best when it is a project that engages, interests, us.’
Manolo, ‘Master David is the creator of this lab, and developed the stacked gardens you see. With grow lights and an automated sprinkler system, we tripled the amount of ground available for plants.’
Zero, ‘Brilliant, and most efficient.’
I note, ‘A serious bamboo forest as well.’
Manolo, ‘Yes, many of the trees are fifty to seventy years old.’
David, ‘Step this way, through the bamboo.’
There’s a hut in front of a concrete block wall.
‘We purchased the warehouse behind several years ago, it provides storage space for the temple, and we rent space which provides a bit of income.’
Zero, ‘Is it permitted to enter the hut?’
David Li nods the affirmative, Zero goes in trailed by Alice. It’s dark inside, but the external light shows the interior to be spotless. There are no power outlets, no water, it’s a wooden structure, perhaps ten by ten. The roof appears to be grass.
David Li, ‘The hut was the home of one of our Qi Masters, gone now, a great friend and instructor of Master J and her companion Master Daphne.’
From inside the hut, Zero asks, ‘May we stay for a while longer, we sense a presence, one inviting us to remain for a time.’
David Li smiles, ‘Of course, we will be in the training area, come along when you are ready.’
As we retrace our steps, David Li says, ‘Not everyone feels it, it requires a certain depth of sensitivity, the two girls are perhaps what we call Sensitives, or even Mystics.’
Natasha, ‘Alice would be the Sensitive. Zero the other, she is over two hundred years old, a dozen different lives.’
David Li, ‘An Eternal, or Immortal, the same thing.’
‘Not immortal as in never dying, we do not age, but we can be killed. Zero only remembers snippets of her past lives, the rest of us have no such memory, if we had past lives they were different from who we are today.’
David Li, ‘But hers were as the same person, in different places and times.’
‘Da, yes.’
As we return to the front of the temple, it occurs to me that the space, the whole temple area, grounds and buildings, is bigger that it would appear to be from the outside. Perhaps because most of it is open to the sky, the rest are various buildings, including a dormitory and what seems to be meeting or classrooms.
Still, I’d swear you couldn’t fit the whole place inside the exterior walls, ten feet high that run across the front and down both sides, the rear wall being the warehouse. That wall is at least fifty feet high, no windows or doors.
We enjoy the practice session for an hour, the monks work it, sparring done, they do various kata depending on rank I presume.
‘How does one gain entrance, as a student I mean?’
David Li, ‘Students are accepted once a year only. They wait outside until invited in, which will take at least three days, often four. Potential students wait, demonstrating commitment, the curious give up and go home. The few that remain, one to four maybe, are invited in for tea and a meal. If they are deemed suitable, they are ushered off to the student dormitory.’
‘Bad question maybe, how does the progression work?’
David Li, ‘Students remain students until Senior Disciples decide to mention the student to the Masters. Once they are promoted to Disciple, they have to earn that rank every year. We don’t just crank out martial artists, they have to take educational subjects and they have to pass rigorous tests. Everyone learns Chinese if they don’t speak it already, other language courses are available. Master J insisted on quality hard and software which Master Daphne's mother, a computer security specialist, keeps current. Our monks go on to college, which we help pay for, and enter all sorts of professions, law, engineering, medicine, computer science is popular.’
‘An all in one facility and it’s all free?’
‘Thanks to Mrs. Fong and Master J.’
Zero and Alice appear, Zero says, ‘We felt the presence descend over us, I’d say more, but there’s a reason some things are said to be indescribable.’
David Li, ‘You practice Qi, gathering energy, using it?’
‘Yes, I can do a bit of telekinesis, Alice is much better.’
‘You may find your ability enhanced over the next few weeks, but you must continue to train, use it or lose it as the saying goes.’
‘We train every day, almost, sometimes there is work, and sometimes the work requires our Qi.’
David Li stands, our signal to go, ‘Zero, give me a number where you can be reached. I’ll speak to Master J, you may hear from her.’

One Hundred Seventy Two

We walk to the hotel, sidewalks are busy, impossible to carry on a discussion while dodging pedestrians coming the other way.
In our suite, it’s past tea, Zero makes cocktails and opens wine, ‘I made a reservation for eight at Old Homestead Steak House, been in Hell’s Kitchen long before gentrification, when the area was meatpacking and warehouses and you didn’t walk alone at night I read. Now you have to dodge hipsters going to wine bars and nouveau cuisine restaurants. 
Nikita, ‘Ees too many people rushing around, streets full of cars going no place, we haf better life een California.’
‘You were quiet today, any thoughts?’
‘Sister was eempress wiz Shaolin persons, she says Chan ees much more than restaurant owner. There ees more een temple than gung fu and study.’
‘We were being vetted, for all they knew our call about Shadows was a trick by Shadows to get in the temple.’
‘But Chan ees Shaolin, they would try and keel.’
Zero, ‘Chan is invulnerable, all Shadows would get is dead, his aura is the color of sheet steel and I think he could throw a Qi shot through a brick wall.’
I add, ‘And his hands are as big as mine, his handshake felt like a vise-grip.’
Zero, ‘Did you catch the part about twenty girls?’
‘I was trying not to.’
Alice, ‘Why?’
Nikita, ‘Eensular fahmahley wiz only girls, they must be like us, lazebian.’
Alice giggles, ‘I get it now.’
The steakhouse lives up to its reputation, filets the size of soft balls, nicely crusted outside, nicely red rare inside, creamed spinach, and buttermilk onion rings accompany. We seldom order appetizers or dessert, tonight is no different. 
We walk back to settle dinner, it’s gotten late, near eleven. No Shadows jump out of dark alleys. Consensus is to return home in the morning, we don’t tourist much at any time, touristing in Manhattan is more like expensive work than enjoyment.
For the five and a half flight, pickup three time zones, leave at ten, home for one, CC collects us.
‘Zero filled us in while you were in the air, think we’ll hear from anyone?’
‘They do or they don’t, but they wanted a number for Zero, no point in that if nobody’s going to call. The kids doing okay? We weren’t gone but two days.’
‘Excited that Alice is back, her two girl posse prefers her in arm’s reach.’
Alice, ‘I’m weaning them slowly, for now I’m enjoying the company and they find lots to do that doesn’t involve me hovering.’
Home, Morshchiny does her sniff check, we haven’t turned into zombies, she lets us pass.
Fin, ‘We going to meet a houseful of Shadow killers?’
‘Maybe, probably, we didn’t get details on the family except there are a bunch of them. I doubt they all hunt Shadows, must be interesting if they travel together, twenty seats, a private flight would require a decent sized jet.’
‘How do you know they fly private?’
Zero, ‘I did homework on the name Sylk, it’s not common, it’s not a surname I could find anyplace else. Janah’s companion must be Daphne Sylk, don’t know her relation to Chloe Sylk, they aren’t biological sisters. There’s a conglomerate called Murakami Sylk, closely held, but the number of businesses they have under the umbrella is significant. They aren’t poor, they are one percenters for sure, more like one tenth of one percent.’
‘Who’s Murakami?’
‘Face of the company, an unforgettable face, she’s gorgeous. Murakami isn’t as uncommon as Sylk, there are a chain of stores in Manhattan and the boroughs with the name Murakami, don’t know if they have any connection to Nikko Murakami, half of Murakami Sylk.’
We piddle around with unpacking, girls go out to the pool, I’m content to park it on the couch and read, I hear the ding of a phone, we have a bunch of phones, this one is on the kitchen island, one of Zero’s, I click to answer.
A woman’s voice, ‘I’m calling for Zero, my name is Janah.’
‘You have interesting friends in Manhattan, the temple is fascinating.’
‘Ah, you must be Commandant, is Zero available?’
‘Right here, well, right outside,’ I take the phone to Zero, ‘Janah.’
Zero, ‘Zero here.’
‘I was floored to learn you live in Malibu, we gave up on New York a few years ago, our city moved away from us so we moved away from our city.’
‘Commandant had been previously, he said much the same, saw anything small or personal priced out of business, then the tourists came from Asia and you can’t enjoy a museum or a play without a camera clicking.’
‘Yep, that did it for us, Daphne’s mom, her companions and my parents hung on, but we built them a separate house on our property and they bailed too. They love it here, and they like being near the family. I’m calling to connect, we should meet.’
‘Come to the house one afternoon, we can talk and slide into dinner.’
‘If it works for you, I’ll come with Daphne and Nikko.’
‘I hear you have Russian twins, as do we, maybe they’d like to meet, bring them along as well.’
‘Dinner, any specialties? Things to avoid.’
‘I’m a lapsed vegetarian, I eat fish, shrimp, sometimes chicken, but make whatever, I always find something to feed on.’
‘No problem, Zoe and Alice stir fry vegetables like a pro, and we often include baked potatoes, I know, I’ll get her to make fried vegetables, sprinkle on a bit of parmesan, they’re a house favorite.’
‘Perfect, when works for you?’
‘Tomorrow night, anytime actually, we’re taking a short travel hiatus, glad to have seen the temple, David Li was most hospitable, as was Chan. His restaurant is incredible and Ning is adorable.’
‘Tomorrow is fine, time?’
‘Come around tea time, say four.’
‘An address?’
‘You have GPS, we don’t list an address, and the last stretch of road is private and doesn’t have a name.’
‘Easy, give me coordinates then.’
Zero reads them off, ‘Call me when you’re near, I’ll open the gate,’ they disconnect.
‘Dinner tomorrow for five guests, Zoe, make those fried vegs please, and one guest is mostly vegetarian but eats fish.’
Zoe, ‘Fried catfish, no, we’re having fried vegetables, trout with meunière sauce, creamed spinach, baked with additives, sound like enough?’
‘More than, Commandant will get something sweet from Luisa’s, tea cakes for tea, then dessert.’

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