Nine

Zero heats the soups, shrimp entrée in a warm oven, fixes herself a spritzer, pours a glass for me.
‘Any video preferences?’
‘We can keep going with Wire, there’s another well reviewed program on Netflix called Luther. He meets up with a psycho called Alice, things get interesting I read.’
‘Your choice.’
We wind up with Wire and Dr. Tony Hill, socially inept, whip smart, pissing off cops left and right. She swaps to Netflix and loads up the first episode of Luther.
He meets the psycho Alice, who he believes murdered her father but can’t prove, then on to a failed attempt to reunite with his wife who has moved on to some other bubba.
The episode ends, it’s eleven, time for sprites to sleep. We do going to bed things, flush and brush, then climb in. I hear a drawer open on her side, then a light buzz. I smile at the ceiling, using the silver bullet vibrator she got from Amazon. 
After a few minutes, a small squeak, she shivers. I can see enough, she puts the toy in her mouth and slides her lips along it. Rolls to her side and puts it on the nightstand.
She curls into me, ‘Keep you awake?’
‘It’s good, you get buzzed?’
Giggles, ‘Sure did, I love that thing.’
We sleep in, I stir around eight thirty, do the morning ritual, then to make coffee. Zero comes along in fifteen, wearing the nothing she went to bed in.
‘I slept wonderfully, you make a good long pillow.’
‘I sleep better with you there, I wondered if it would be just the opposite, but it’s not.’
‘Making breakfast light, cut fruit and yogurt, sandwich for lunch okay?’
‘Sure. I’ll do a grocery run, you can stay here if you wish.’
‘I have lots of projects, I’ll go if you need me.’
‘It’s good, not that much anyway, basics, milk, bread, boring.’
‘Pick up flank steak, one of us can grill it tonight, maybe a potato, I could boil red potatoes and mash them, and fresh mushrooms.’
‘Will do,’ I cross the room, pull pants over my boxers, t-shirt over which goes a long sleeve casual shirt.
Go over to the counter, she’s still on a stool, stroke her fine hair, kiss her forehead and both cheeks.
‘I am irresistible.’
‘And charming, and a good shot.’
She smiles, crosses one lean leg over the other, looking to see if I’m looking. She isn’t disappointed.
‘Good boy, now go, I have studies this morning.’
Tease.
Only takes me an hour and that because I randomly wandered the aisles in case I stumbled across something different or hadn’t thought of. I can’t remember if we have ice cream, I buy vanilla and chocolate, check out and go home.
I never felt the need for a desk, the kitchen island serves, there are outlets underneath for the laptops, recharge phones and tablets. Glance over her shoulder, she’s typing in code for something, she did manage to get into a t-shirt and socks.
The floors stay clean, we drop shoes at the door, a couple of Roomba vacs travel around sucking up whatever. Once a week I use wet Swiffers. After I put away our stuff, I decide to do that. By the time I go through a half dozen pads, she’s had enough coding.
‘My brain is frozen, maybe something physical, yoga, this afternoon I’ll get on the heavy bag.’
Zero bought stretchy yoga pants, the t-shirt serves as a top. I change into sweatpants and join her. I don’t do formal yoga, I stretch. I figure if I can do a front and side split and handstands, good enough. Then a plank with my feet elevated, hold it for a couple of minutes then fifty pushups, harder with my feet propped on an ottoman. Finish with five miles on the treadmill.
Zero is remarkably flexible, almost double jointed in the wrists and elbows. Her finale is to plant one foot on the mat, raise the other leg, grab it by the ankle and pull it straight up and over her head. After a minute, she swaps.
‘I’m always impressed with your flexibility and balance, you work it, and without a class or a coach. That’s discipline, the best discipline, self-discipline.’
She grins, she likes to be complimented, who doesn’t? In her case much deserved.
We sit cross legged, I brought over glasses of water in insulated tumblers, we sip and relax, endorphins flowing, it feels good to keep things toned and strong.
‘After lunch, an hour of nothing or a nap, when you’re done with the heavy bag, I’ll massage beat up muscles.’
‘Sounds delish,’ she stands, straight up from her lotus, no hands, makes it look easy. Try it, it isn’t.
‘Take your shower, I’ll make lunch.’
By the time I’m dry and back, there are four sandwiches on multigrain, a bag of chips and two Coke Zeros. 
‘Chipotle chicken on two, one bologna, one roast beef. That Boar’s Head stuff is tasty,’ she cut off the crusts, more protein, less bread.
‘Take what you want, I’ll eat whatever’s left.’
She takes one of the chicken and a half the bologna, I devour the rest. 
‘Where are you with Lolita?’
‘Getting a tour of the country, there was no interstate then, it was the fifties, a million years before I was born, this time.’
I catch the comment, don’t inquire.
She continues, ‘Humbert and Dolly ride through one small town to another, the girl increasingly unhappy, Humbert oblivious to anything but his fascination with the twelve year old.’
‘What do you think, about Humbert and the girl?’
‘I think it started with both of them getting what they wanted. He was enamored with a young sylph, she wanted attention, no father around, Humbert was the substitute. Once she had her taste, exerted her feminine allure, she was ready to quit. He couldn’t.’
‘How do you feel about that? I know it’s a novel, made up, pretend for the moment it was real.’
She pauses, thinks it over, ‘I’m sort of Lolita, but you aren’t Humbert. What we do is what Dolly, Lolita, really wanted.’
‘Which was?’
‘A part dad, part pretend lover, she, a borderline teen girl manipulating a grown man, a sense of power without consequences, at least to her. She got more than she bargained for.’
‘So be careful what you want, you just might overdose.’
‘Ah…right, good lesson.’
‘In her immaturity, she had no way to draw a line, this far, no further. Teenage hormones are far more powerful than logic, and consequences only happen to someone else.’
‘Humbert lacked maturity too, his passion overruled everything.’
Zero surprises me regularly. She reads voraciously, has a unique intelligence, her own way of seeing.
Clear the counter, I go brush my teeth, decide to lay down and zone for a while.
Zero refreshes, crawls next to me. She takes her spot on my shoulder, I stroke her head gently. Like young puppies everywhere, she’s been fed, now for a nap.
I wake her with a gentle squeeze, ‘Might want to get moving or we’ll be up all night.’
Zero, ‘So what? We don’t require regular hours, maybe when there is travel, but not around here. What would happen if we decided to get up a five say, or go to bed at two?’
‘Nothing I suppose, if we, or one of us, decided to go that route.’
‘Well, maybe not. Sleep, I’ve read, is essential for clear thinking, good attitude, and creativity even. Besides, I’m training you to sleep when I do, among other lessons you will learn.’

Ten

We take on the heavy bag, I introduce side and back kick, she absorbs the techniques quickly. She’s at the stage where she still thinks about technique. That will pass and the moves will be as much a part of her as breathing.
‘Okay, enough for today, lay down and I’ll get the liniment.’
Give her a long massage, feet to face, she flips and I get better work on calves, hamstrings and back. 
I tap her bare backside, ‘Done, drink this water, when you feel like getting up, you can shower and wash off the wet woods scent.’
‘Wash my hair, then keep me company while I finish.’
I wash and rinse, sit on the vanity stool with a couple of towels. She looks over now and again to make sure I’m watching, slight grin when she’s satisfied I am.
Towel dry hair, dry her, blow dry, take the towels to the laundry room. 
In the kitchen, I fiddle with the flank steak, it’s been marinating in the refrigerator.
Potatoes are boiled and await mashing.
Zero comes in wearing t-shirts and socks, other times nude and socks as the mood strikes. Based on how the shirt hugs, she’s not started wearing underwear. In fact, I don’t recall washing panties at all, I’m not sure she has any.
We have time before dinner, Zero makes me a drink, her spritzer, which may have an ounce of wine in it. She’ll have one now, one with dinner, that’s it.
We sit on the same side of the island counter, I suspect you know why she wants it that way.
Zero, ‘Do you know anything about eastern, um…they aren’t religions exactly, like Buddhism for instance?’
‘I was around it when I was in the army. I did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I spent time in the far east, Japan, Korea.’
‘What did you find out, or see?’
‘A lot of superstition, Asians are the most superstitious people on the planet, although I think religion is all superstition, so I’d have to count Christians, Muslims, and all the minor religions with gods. Real Buddhism is more like Chan in China, which is Zen in Japan. No gods. They go for what’s called a direct perception of reality. Now I’m dry.’
She has a tablet, ‘I’ll go to Amazon and find a couple of well rated basics.’
She clicks around Buddhism books, ‘Seems like DT Suzuki has a good reputation, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.’
She moves that to the cart, clicks to buy, book will be here in two days, occasionally things arrive the next day.
‘Amazon is amazing, they have everything.’
‘There are probably Zen articles on the web.’
She types in ‘zen buddhism’ on the search line, ‘Geez, yeah, even videos. Good, we need to get dinner fixed, I can read through this stuff tomorrow after breakfast.’
She mashes potatoes, skin and all, I grill the flank, which is quick. Then slice, cut flank in strips across the grain. It is the leanest steak and is delicious but can be chewy cut any other way.
‘Potatoes are great, what’d you do?’
‘Sour cream, lots of clarified butter, salt, pepper, paprika, chives, sautéed mushrooms.’
‘A little surprising, but you continue to surprise me, I think kids generally like mashed to be smushy and don’t much care for the skin.’
‘If I was a kid, maybe I’d feel the same.’
She says it with a perfectly straight face. Is it a clue? Is she just goofing? Her maturity is unquestioned, if I knew more about children I might be confused. Predisposed to think, she’s eight, so she must be like this or that. I’m not confused because I know jack about children, less than jack about raising them. Don’t like the term ‘raising’, it smacks of brainwashing at the worst, dog training at the least. I don’t know how Zero should be, or put another way, she is already the way she should be. I know that because that’s how she is.
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’
Looks at me sideways, ‘I don’t know, am I?’
I let it drop, more interesting to see what unfolds than to get explanations, which are only words, truth is what happens.
We pass the evening in our preferred fashion, episode of Wire, then Luther. I like our routine, pretty much set by Zero. As I noted earlier, I’m accustomed to following orders, she has no issues about issuing them.
Finish up Luther, do get ready for bed things, slide under cool soft sheets and the heavy blanket. We are in our self made cocoon, me on my back, Zero smushed into my side. The brain switches to unconscious, prunes the unused neurons, grows new ones, always busy. We are blissfully unaware of any of it.
We pass our days in Zero’s routines, she stays occupied with study, exercise, cooking. She wanted a bit of color, set herself up in the grassy area behind the building, lounge chair, side table for books and water. Suns for an hour, thirty front, thirty back, no more than three days a week.
‘You’ve gotten a nice light tan.’
‘This is it, I don’t want darker. Sunlight is good to a point, vitamin D and all.’
‘And no tan lines, tan lines look goofy. You are stunning, tan or no.’
‘It is only the truth,’ she smiles, ‘I am all that. Off to shower, bring me a Coke.’
She doesn’t please or thank you, I like that. Zero will never be obsequious, that’s my duty as sycophant, the Queen’s footman. 
Bring the Coke when I hear the shower shut off, she sips while I blow dry, turns her cheek up for a kiss, hands me the empty glass. I go off to stir soup.
Zero appears, only socks today, showing off her tan.
‘Black bean soup with diced tomato, red pepper and ham chunks, good idea, the whole meal in a bowl.’
Zero makes me a vodka and her usual, sits and taps something on the tablet, ‘There is a conflict.’
I showed her how to access the site, she checks it a couple times a day.
‘Tell me.’
‘Walter Peterson, dentist, address, photo of car and plate.’
‘Look him up.’
She taps around, ‘Ah, arrested for molestation of a minor, charges dropped. Civil suit when the criminal charges didn’t hold up. Settled for an undisclosed amount.’
‘No doubt related to the message on the site. Perhaps there was more than one kid but charges weren’t brought, no other civil suit?’
‘Not that I can find.’
‘I don’t much care what he did, we aren’t detectives. I only look them up to see what surprises I might be dealing with.’
‘Surprises?’
‘Yes, like does he hunt, or belong to a gun club, is he in trouble that might mean he’s under surveillance by this or that department or agency.’
‘So you don’t get caught by the whoever keeping tabs on him.’
‘Smart girl.’
‘So, when do we travel?’

Eleven

When the mind ceases to seek because it has understood the total significance of search, do not the limitations it has imposed on itself fall away? And is the mind not then the immeasurable, the unknown?
J.Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living III

Blue Sky has us at the destination for three. Long enough flight, three hours in the air, two lost in time zones. Another day, another invisible rental sedan, gray this time, a Honda Sufrir built in Mexico by failed Buddhists. I drive to the dentist’s office.
Zero, ‘I want this one.’
She’s informing me, not asking permission.
I salute, ‘Yes sir, ma’am.’
‘Idiot.’
‘Take a walk around the building, pay attention, see if anything sticks out as either opportunity or trouble. Use your cell as a misdirection, pretend you’re talking.’
She gets out, we’re a block down from the place, phone comes out, she proceeds to talk to the air. Passes the front, down the far side, it’s taking longer than a walk around should. I start to get out, she appears at the near side corner and comes to the car.
‘Nothing interesting, blinds drawn except for one window which looks like a little kitchen. Nobody in it.’
‘A break room for staff. Get a coffee, snack, eat lunch. Nothing to do here then, which is normal. Unless the target works alone, it’s dicey doing the job where there are other people. I’m not a sniper assassin, outside the army, I’ve only done one kill with a rifle, target had a house on a big patch of land. The land was wide open, no shrubbery, few trees, no clear way to get in the house or even up to it.’
‘How’d you do it?’
‘He liked to take a drink in the early evening on the porch. I rented an SUV, parked a quarter mile away, hatch facing the target. I could lay prone, sighted him in, chest shot with a .308, a good scope, like I was standing in front of him. The scope is sighted in for a hundred yards, you click the sight adjustment for the longer shot, the bullet, even traveling so fast, is still subject to gravity. It drops as it travels, the adjustment is for the drop.’
‘You can show me when we get to the range next time. What now?’
‘His car around?’
‘In back.’
‘Ah, should have thought of it in the first place, can someone in the break room see the car?’
She thinks, doing the logistics in her head, ‘Probably, if they were standing close to the window.’
‘I’ll drive through the lot, stop behind his car, and pretend to be taking a phone call. You take this,’ I hand her a GPS tracker, a Spark Nano, ‘it’s a GPS device, see the magnet on top?’
A nod.
‘Click it on the bumper strut, that’s the metal bar connecting to the bumper. Bumpers are made of plastic these days, it’s the strut and support that’s metal. You will feel it connect, the magnet is strong. When you have it placed, give it a tug to make sure it made solid contact, won’t fall off if he hits a pothole. Go out low, come in the same way.’
I drive to the corner, turn right, left to enter the rear lot. Stop, stick my phone to my ear and act as if I’m talking. Zero slips out, then the ‘thunk’ of a connection, she gets in, I put the phone down and pull away.
‘You do good sneak.’
She smiles, ‘Find a store, I want a Coke.’
We stop at a convenience store, Coke Zero for Zero, coffee for me. On to the dentist’s house.
‘Must have implanted a lot of teeth, big place for one person, maybe he’s got a wife, kids. Or had a wife and kids until he was charged; something like that, even if charges were dropped, is a major embarrassment at the least. She might have bailed, most wives would. We need to find a spot to lurk, see if anyone but him goes in or comes out.’
‘A small park down there, benches, we can sit there.’
Park the car on the far side, we stroll across the grass and plop on a bench, sip coffee and soda. We have sunglasses, Zero has a watch cap over her blonde, I have a dweeb baseball cap. I don’t like hats, had to wear enough helmets in the army to last a lifetime, with cameras everywhere we need some level of disguise. Dressed in loose fitting jeans, unremarkable tops, lightweight jackets to cover guns, black sneakers, so average as to be invisible.
Zero, ‘I’m good cover, how many people would connect a man with a kid to an assassin?’
‘Good point, not to mention a kid who wants to resolve the conflict herself.’
Giggles, then, ‘That’s his car.’
So it is, he passes, turns left into his drive, garage door rolls up. There are two doors, the one opening is closest to the house. If there’s another car, we can’t see it.
‘Crap, he isn’t making it easy, but it will be dark soon. You can make another sneak, peek in a couple of windows, see what’s what.’
Even though the homes and yards are spacious, it’s still a neighborhood, cars pass, if there are families with kids, they’re inside playing video games. Twilight goes, now it’s dark. There are streetlights, the light over the dentist’s front door isn’t on. In fact, all the windows facing the street are dark. 
‘Give me the gun.’
‘You’re just doing reconnaissance.’
‘If he’s alone, I don’t want to have to come back for it.’
She’s right, I screw on the suppressor, hand it to her, ‘Five in the magazine, one in the chamber.’
She pulls the slide enough to see the bullet, ‘Good, never believe anyone, even me, about what’s loaded or not loaded.’
She ejects the magazine, ‘All the babies are in bed, if I need six shots we have a problem.’
Out the car, down the block, holster clips onto her belt. Best not to be carrying it in her hand while she walks down the street.
I wait, surprised I’m only a little anxious, but then, she’s the one armed and dangerous. Her target is unlikely to be carrying a dental drill. Ten minutes, I see her walking my way, good, at least she isn’t running.
Gets in, hands me the gun, I smell spent gunpowder, eject the magazine, all five bullets, rack the slide, chamber empty.
‘You get the cartridge?’
Holds up her hand, still gloved, ‘Right here.’
‘You can fill me in over dinner, takeout, we’ll eat at the hotel.’
I spot a Chicken Coop, the lot is busy, line for the drive-thru, must be okay, get an eight piece crispy, no sides, stop at a market for wine and vodka, bottle of seltzer, bag of ice. I didn’t make any hotel reservations, Zero searches and finds us one with a kitchen, an oven and full size refrigerator. 
She makes drinks while I lay out the chicken on a pan and stick it in the oven on two fifty. We strip, take a hot shower, enjoy our drinks.
Chicken warm, two plates, forks, we sit to eat.
While we rip apart fried chicken, she recaps.
‘Didn’t take but one pass to see he was alone. Kitchen lights on, across from which was the living area. He had a drink, something brown with ice. The living room opens to the patio, no lights on there, just what spilled out from the house. I tapped on the sliding door and smiled, moved my mouth like I was talking and pointing at some vague spot behind me.’
I wait, we sip, chomp a bit of chicken, she continues, ‘He came to the door and slid it open, asked if there was a problem, did I need help. Then I put a round in his neck, or I should say, under his jaw, where you showed me, so the bullet would get into his brain. He fell backwards, glass hit the carpet but only spilled his drink, didn’t break. The cartridge was a few feet away, I took it and left.’
‘If you got a bullet in and nothing out, he is surely dead.’
‘He’s dead, done, you loaded the unjacketed hollow point, his brain has bits of bullet throughout.’
‘And how are you?’
‘Fucking fabulous, pass me the wings. Did you get us a flight home?’
‘Ten, we lost two hours in time zones flying here, we get them back tomorrow, so 
land around eleven. I didn’t order food, we have time for breakfast before we go to the airport.’
I’m studying her, she looks up at me, ‘Quit worrying, I’m good, very good, I like it. No nerves, no regret, no existential angst. I may never let you do another kill, but I don’t want to be greedy.’
Existential angst? I’ll look it up.

Twelve

Home, I show her how to clean the gun as an exercise, only one bullet was fired but the thing is out, so she breaks it down and cleans it anyway. 
‘These things are pretty simple.’
‘Yep, that’s the idea, easy to shoot, easy to clean, mostly plastic so lightweight. The suppressor adds weight, but it adds security as well.’
‘Isn’t like I have to tote the gun far, I was impressed by how little noise it made, nothing like when we go to the range and don’t use suppressors. I see why you insist on ear protection. One or two rounds would be fine, but we go through a couple boxes of bullets each.’
‘You mentioned existential angst yesterday, where did you pick up that term?’
‘It’s also called existential anxiety, people who worry about the meaning of life, their life in particular.’
‘Do you think there’s meaning?’
‘I make my own, or maybe I just don’t spend time thinking about it, that’s for philosophers. If I were asked to explain the meaning of my life, my answer would be silence, nothing…Zero. I am, that’s all the meaning I need.’
‘Solipsism.’
‘What’s that?’
‘The self is all you can really know exists, some people call it extreme egocentrism, I suppose narcissism as well.’
She smiles, ‘I’m perfectly happy to love me.’
I laugh, ‘Self fascination is the human condition.’
‘How can it be any other way? Everything people do is self referential, all thought, emotion, and action is about self gratification.’
‘If it didn’t make us feel good, or feel better, it wouldn’t happen.’
‘Pretty much.’
‘What about depressed people, or people who commit suicide?’
‘Depression is all about self absorption, suicide is the ultimate selfish act.’
She gives me things to contemplate, she’s young, over halfway to nine. When I was nine I was playing soldier and touch football. None of the things she talks about ever passed through my mind, hell, at that age, almost nothing of any kind passed through, or maybe more like everything passed through unexamined.
I start to ask how she came to this. Then I yank the brakes on that thought. Better to let answers, if there are any, surface on their own.
‘My book came in, the Buddhism book. I surfed the topic on the web, there’s a million kinds of Buddhism. Maybe Suzuki can sort it out in plain language, the reviews say he does. I’ll find out tomorrow, now time to make dinner and have a goof off this evening. Park yourself by the island counter and admire my assets. I’ll show my appreciation for your appreciation by making you a drink.’
While I sip, she pulls lasagna from the oven, ‘I used ground veal, added chopped red and yellow peppers, mushrooms, and three cheeses.’
‘Smells wonderful, you going to let it sit for a bit?’
‘Yep, won’t be runny when I cut nice fat chunks out. I have to heat the ciabatta anyway.’
We have Chianti with dinner, her’s a spritzer as usual. 
Zero, ‘Tomorrow, find us a cabin to rent in the Canadian Rockies, I’m feeling the need for ice blue lakes and mountain hikes. Maybe even fish.’
‘That’s an excellent idea, I need to get you a passport, but I think all you need is proof of US citizenship. I’ll have to get a birth certificate, I know people who can forge those, passports are trickier. And you can’t just be Zero, it raises suspicions. Any names you like?’
‘I’ll use Mathilda and your last name, your daughter who sadly lost her mother in a catastrophic cheese grater incident.’
I laugh, ‘If you go as my daughter I don’t think we need to explain the missing mom.’
‘When can we go?’
‘I’ll call my connection tomorrow, send him your photo, he’ll file the necessary forms once he’s concocted your birth certificate which will serve as proof of US citizenship.’
‘Where did you hook up with these people?’
‘Army, I met all sorts in the army, I helped this particular contact with a difficult personal situation, a conflict if you will.’
‘Ah, and you resolved it.’
‘I did.’
‘Time to eat, pour wine, I’ll get the lasagna arranged.’
I cut into my hunk and taste, ‘Geez Zero, this is amazing, you do good cook girl.’
‘I am amazing in so many ways, ways I have yet to reveal. If you mind your manners and do as you are told, perhaps I shall.’
‘A mystery wrapped in an enigma, I think Churchill said that.’
She smiles, props one foot on the seat of the stool, lets her leg fall to the side allowing me a view of the soft smooth. I’m required to gaze, I’d gaze even if it wasn’t required.
I look up knowing she’s watching me, ‘Lovely.’
‘You’re learning, nasty boy, finish your dinner, you can appreciate perfection between bites,’ she giggles, ‘I’m such a tease, it’s not that I can’t help myself, I don’t want to help myself.’
‘We do what we do, the brain directs, our bodies obey.’

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