It was almost a year before Alicia and David again asked Sasha to use what he called her “psychic” powers. She protested a few times about the term but finally gave up. He was not going to change.
But even more importantly almost anyone hearing her called a psychic would disbelieve she had any unusual abilities. Any real help she gave the police would be dismissed as luck, or the result of superior detective work by the police.
In that almost-a-year Sasha’s family and friends prospered. Having enough money and time and occasional West Coast jobs meant she could visit them and insure they were healthy and to nourish her ties with them.
Sasha also developed family and friends everywhere she went, and especially in her home base of New York. Part of this was that most people she worked with became healthier and happier. Some of this was from using her ability to fix people’s health problems with a touch. Some of it was that she was curious about people and most took that to mean she cared for them.
Not that she was always in perfect agreement with people, but when she scraped at their silly or malicious ways she seemed to do it with humorous compassion. Notoriously difficult people became less unhappy and less likely to inflict their unhappiness on others.
Some of those difficult people did so from covert and subtle ill health. Those who were simply ass-holes and not likely to change did moderate their behavior when Sasha stared at them with a literally unblinking steady and steely gaze. They got nervous and remembered that she had killed someone, then “remembered” that she had killed or beaten up several someones, and then multitudes of someones.
Her dangerous reputation was enhanced mid-summer when she was on a shoot at a beautiful sandy beach. Some native bandits decided to commit robbery and some recreational rape. When a tall beautiful foreigner wearing only a bikini walked calmly up them they laughed. For a few seconds. Afterwards none of the gang lacked broken bones and near-ruptured spleens and other organs.
It was said that local robbery and rapine declined sharply that year.
In Brooklyn she took a day off every few weeks to volunteer at a homeless shelter or hospital, covertly curing as many health problems as she could.
She learned to dance salsa and the Argentine tango and was a popular partner at dance clubs. She had casual love affairs with three men and one woman, being careful not to give them so much pleasure that she forever ruined them for ordinary lovers.
She attended a number of celebrity events, most of them because her profession required her to be glamorously visible to meet possible new clients and stay in the public eye. Though celebrities were not always happy to have her at events where they were the guests of honor. Sasha was triply famous herself and few people liked to be outshone by someone’s else’s mere presence.
She coaxed Alicia Love to some of the celebrity events. Her estimate of Alicia’s beauty possibilities were born out. Made up and dressed up she was stand-out lovely.
Sasha was happy herself but she sometimes missed the chance to bring bad guys to justice.
Then at Thanksgiving that year the FBI called upon her to help them do just that.
“Sasha Canaro, this is Special Agent Helen Shaker of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said Alicia Love.
Sasha half-stood from a table at a pizza place across the street from the tall Federal Office Building in downtown Manhattan at Broadway and Thomas Street. The glass-fronted building outside cast a shadow over the side of the street they were on. Outside beside the building a sun-lit green park took up part of the Federal Plaza. Several people could be seen sitting on concrete benches eating late-morning lunches.
At the closest table, behind the two women, David Trent took up a table to keep anyone from overhearing the conversation about to take place. The aisles behind the FBI agent and to her left and the big picture window to her right also gave them added privacy.
Her exposed back made the agent nervous, though only Sasha could tell that from several subtle muscle tensions the woman displayed. Besides, Sasha was reading the woman’s body through their hand contact.
“A pleasure, Ms. Shaker. And don’t be nervous. Alicia has your back and she doesn’t sleep on the job.”
This did not sit well with the woman but she spoke only to Alicia. “THIS is your expert?”
The auburn-haired woman was severely attractive, her style much of a piece with that of Alicia’s on-the-job style. But the resemblance went beyond that. The two had been room-mates and friends at college.
Sasha could hardly blame the agent for her doubt. Sasha was barely twenty-one and stunningly, blondly gorgeous in a casual gold and red outfit that would have cost several thousand dollars if Sasha had not been given it at a fashion shoot.
Alicia grinned. “You of all people should know not to judge people by their appearances.”
Shaker smiled slightly at some private joke.
Alicia said, “As if you didn’t research the Hell out of her before you agreed to this meet.”
Shaker examined Sasha closely, shook her head. “It’s hard to believe you’re ‘The Deadliest Woman on the Planet’.”
The shapechanger shrugged and began to tell the agent who she had most recently touched or stood close to that morning. After the fourth detailed description Shaker held up a hand.
“Very well. What’s the trick? And none of that ‘psychic powers’ shit.”
Sasha gave her the official story, that she had a very sensitive nose when she wanted it to be and that somehow her brain could interpret the DNA of people and animals she could smell.
“I can only tell you what they look like at maturity, without scars and burns and whatever. I would guess that the people I told you about are in their thirties and more, but I can’t SEE that.”
This was a lie. Sasha could read age easily but that ability seemed a little too scary to let anyone know about it.
Shaker looked at her thoughtfully then turned her gaze to her old college friend.
“She’s for real, isn’t she?”
“Real as a heart attack. There was this serial murder case ‑‑”
“Yes, I remember you telling me about it.”
“She bent over in the morgue and sniffed the perp’s stuff on this woman’s belly. Then she told us there were two men and described them well enough we could find them in surveil discs. After that it was routine.”
Routine for you two, Sasha thought at Alicia. She was still amazed sometimes at the work Alicia and David had done taking the problem the rest of the way to arrest and conviction.
“Very well then,” said the agent briskly, sitting up and leaning toward Sasha.
The previous day the thirteen-year-old daughter of a very rich couple had been kidnapped from their home. They had been surprised and annoyed but not alarmed when they arrived home and found the girl missing, assuming she was with her best friend and had not left a note saying so. But early that night they had gotten a call from purported kidnappers demanding a ransom.
Rich people were always in danger of kidnap/ransom attempts. They guarded against it several ways and were usually successful. But if it did happen they turned to the security company to which they subscribed to handle such emergencies.
“So how did you get involved?”
“The insurance companies require security companies to notify the FBI. Me personally? I’m in charge of kidnaps in this area.”
“But why come to me?”
The FBI woman drained her foam cup of coffee and raised it high and looked at the waiter to ask for a refill. Sasha waited for the waiter to bring it.
“Because I’ve dealt with two attempts very similar to this one in the last year and I think it’s the same gang. Or part of the previous gangs. In both cases the hostage turned up dead or badly injured even though all demands were met. I’m afraid that will happen here.”
Sasha had a sister nearly the same age as the kidnapped girl. She said, “I’ll do what I can. How do we handle this?”
“We can only pay a set rate for consultants, and it’s not much. I can add to it out of my ‑‑”
“Screw that. I’ll do it for free. Pro bono, that’s the legal term, right?”
“OK, whatever. But let’s fill out the paperwork later.”
It turned out the agent had come prepared. Sasha quickly read through the triplicate form the woman pulled out of her purse, signed it, then stood. She paused briefly to say goodbye to her two detective friends and began quickly walking for the door.
Behind her the agent said, “Is she always like this?” as she threw down money for her coffee and turned to go.
Sasha heard David Trent stand and say, with a grin in his voice, “You have no idea how abrupt Sasha can be when she decides to do something.” He had after all seen surveillance discs of Sasha dealing with bank robbers. And personally seen her hole a dozen quarters thrown into the air in a drum roll of pistol fire so rapid the pistol sounded like a fully automatic weapon.
Outside in the cool breeze Sasha was walking rapidly down Broadway. Behind her was the rapid clack-clack of the FBI agent’s modestly high heels.
“Hey, my car is across the street in the underground!”
Sasha said nothing, just turned into the pharmacy a few doors down from the pizza place.
She briefly surveyed the brightly lit interior, then headed to the Toys section. She grabbed a mesh sack of marbles. A few aisles away she snagged a long white scarf.
In the short check-out line near the entrance Special Agent Shaker caught up with her. “Marbles? Have you lost yours?”
Sasha grinned at her as she began to create a belt around her waist from the scarf and fill it with marbles. She liked a woman who kept her wits in an urgent situation.
At checkout the clerk said, “This is opened. Let us get you another.”
Sasha assured her none of the marbles were missing. As she was still adding marbles inside the folded scarf the clerk shrugged and rang up the two purchases.
Outside the entrance Sasha threw the receipt and labels and empty marble bag into a trash can.
“This way.” The agent walked quickly to a walkway across the street, crossing out of the shadow of the Federal Building then back into it as she headed toward the spinning glass doors to the building with Sasha behind her. At the security desk she showed her badge to the guards and told them Sasha was with her.
At the elevators Shaker punched the down button.
“I’m pretty sure you won’t be lending me a weapon. So I’ve improvised my own.”
“I can put one of these into an eye ‑‑ or an ear ‑‑ at fifty feet. At a hundred miles an hour they tend to discourage people from annoying me.”
One of the would-be Down passengers standing nearby abruptly turned and walked away.
The two women grinned at each other.
“A black ‑‑ SUV? Could you be more cliché?”
“It’s ‘consonant with the dignity of the Bureau’.”
“She quoted solemnly.”
Not only Sasha but the agent was in a bit of a hurry. She moved quickly into an exit aisle and her tires squeaked slightly as she hurried around corners. At the exit she briefly hit the siren and red/blue flasher to push into the traffic. But then of course she had to slow to the ambient flow, which seemed half-filled with yellow taxis and a quarter-filled with delivery trucks.
She drove a few blocks south then west and turned right onto West St. This was a divided highway alongside the Hudson River and the traffic speed picked up to fifty miles an hour or better. Only once did agent Shaker have to hit the siren and flasher to get past a clot of traffic.
Sasha paged through the file folder on the Thompson family that Shaker had handed her upon entering the SUV. She lingered longest on the photos of Eliza Thompson. She was a mildly pretty ash blond with long hair, a nice smile, and a gangling body.
She laid the folder on the seat beside her and began to watch the river as they rode north. It was busy with barges and sailboats and tugs, reminding her that New York was still one of the great ports of the world, though much more of the traffic came in via Long Island Sound and the Atlantic south of the East River. For a long stretch there were well over a dozen piers servicing much river traffic.
She could also watch Shaker as they planned what Sasha would do at the crime scene.
“I put you down as a consultant because that pays the biggest bucks. But if anyone asks you’re observing Bureau business for a college thesis. Probably no one will ask; I’ll just bring you in and you quietly snoop.”
“Fine. What’s the layout like?”
“You have to see it to believe it. The Thompsons own this high-rise just off the west side of Central Park. They live on the top three floors. God knows why three people need that much space. But he was married before and they had several kids, so it may have made sense once.
“The rest of the building is rented to his several businesses and to a few other businesses. On the bottom floor is this upscale restaurant.”
“So lots of people have access to the building.”
“There are levels of security. Anyone can walk into the restaurant and the parking garage down under. But you have to have a keycard to get above the second floor. Then another keycard to get into the residence. I have someone analyzing the security set-up and they’ll have a list of people who entered and left in the last 48 hours.”
“Forty eight because someone might have gotten in a day early and laid low overnight.”
Shaker glanced at her. “You have a sneaky mind.”
Sasha dimpled. She had an adorable dimple. Many men, and a few women, had said so. “Thank you!”
There was a landscaped rooftop garden only the family could visit, unless there was a party there. The elevator to the rooftop was separate from the residence elevator, another security precaution.
It would not have kept out Sasha, who could climb buildings like a spider and leap over a hundred feet from rooftop to rooftop.
“If someone got to the roof they could rappelle to the residence and break in through a window.”
“Good thought. We checked it, of course.”
“What are the Thompsons like?”
The man was near sixty but in good shape. A driven businessman who married money and used it to multiply the fortune many-fold. The wife was a mid-thirties trophy wife.
“The first wife died and it was three years before he remarried, but the kids from the first marriage still hated the second wife. I gather in the last few years the animosity has decreased but not gone away.”
“You think some of them might be involved in this? Presumably they have access to the residence, too.”
“I have someone looking into them of course. But it was a good thought. Do you watch a lot of crime shows?”
“No. Never. Any free time I have is spent in practice. Or it was before the Olympics. But my mom was a DA for many years. She didn’t talk much about work, but we learned about her cases anyway.”
“Oh, yeah. She was called The Shark.”
Sasha grinned, looking amazingly shark-like herself for such a beautiful woman.
“She still is.”
The piers were left behind and in a few blocks the highway entered a green riverside park. The day was clear and the scenery was quite beautiful. Sasha turned her head to the right to watch the park pass by.
In a few blocks Shaker veered off onto the 79th Street off-ramp. A few blocks further the street dead-ended and the agent turned right and drove a couple of blocks. She nodded her head toward the left. A stately grey pile was there at the dead end, looking more like a medieval castle than a museum.
“The Museum of Natural History. You ever been there?”
“Find some time. I used to take my kids there. They loved the dinosaurs. And on the other side is the Space Science Museum. They’ve got a miniature model of the space plane and the trans-lunar shuttle. And you can take a virtual tour of the L5 manufacturing facility. Or is it L4? I can never keep the lunar points straight.”
“You have kids?”
“Three of them ‑‑ We’re almost there.”
Shaker turned left then left again and they were traveling north with Central Park spread out to their right. Its miles of greenery and the lake in its northern end were magnificent.
“You ever been there?”
“We had a fashion shoot there and I sometimes go to the outdoor Argentine tango dance every weekend. But the park where I go to is near my home. Prospect Park. It’s almost as big.”
“Here we are.”
Shaker turned on her left-turn blinker and brought the SUV to a halt at the end of a block. A twenty-story-plus warm beige brick building entirely filled the end of the narrow block. On the blocks to both sides similar tall buildings stood. It was as if a cliff-face had grown to the edge of a forest. Which in a way was exactly what had happened.
A red light up ahead created a space in the traffic and Shaker drove into and down a ramp to an echoing garage under the block. It went perhaps the length of an entire football field before them.
At a ticket kiosk Shaker inserted a laser card and the traffic rail lifted to let the SUV into the parking area. Near an elevator the agent parked in a Reserved for Police area and the two got out. Presumably the FBI plates would keep the vehicle from being ticketed or towed.
The laser card got the elevator to the lowest of the three residence levels. It opened to a hallway. Straight ahead a pair of double doors opened into a high-ceilinged ballroom. The uniformed NYPD police officer just inside the entrance nodded at the FBI agent and looked curiously at Sasha when Shaker said “She’s with me.”
Inside Shaker said, “Wander at will. Cover every floor but concentrate on Eliza’s bedroom and the living room when you’ve finished the rest. Compile a list of strangers you detect and come down to get me.” Then the agent was gone to confer with a tall police officer with plenty of stripes on his uniform sleeves.
Sasha bound her hair up in a bun and put on her glare-adjustable sunglasses. The opacity had set itself to mild blocking. This was just enough to disguise her increasingly famous face. It did nothing to disguise her beauty.
She got occasional looks but no one approached her. She wandered, idly inspecting various desks and instrument set-ups in passing. The FBI and police were making good use of the enormous space. She wondered if they were doing more harm than good, too many cooks spoiling the broth.
At the far end of the ballroom was a low stage with a lectern near its front center. Behind were red velvet curtains drawn to each side. Sasha inspected each dressing room and makeup room and closet. She did not expect to find anything but she liked to be thorough.
At the far end of the back area there were a few narrow windows looking west. She could see out dingy glass to see a courtyard below, two long narrow buildings on each side of it, and a building similar the one she was in at the far end of the long narrow block which seemed to be typical of this part of the city.
The second floor was devoted to recreation. There were two table-tennis courts, an exercise area filled with all kinds of machines, a sauna/shower, and a small locker room. To one side there was a separate near-sound-proofed room containing a small movie theater with perhaps three dozen very comfortable chairs and a huge flat-screen on the far wall.
The theater was not much used. The tiny skin fragments everyone shed had long ago settled and decayed. As she walked through the theater Sasha got very faint images of a few dozen humans and a couple of dogs and a cat.
On the front edges of the front seats she scented several DNA stains where legs clad only in shorts or bikinis had rested against the seats. A hand placed on each invisible stain garnered more details, two thin people who were brother and sister, four others who were cousins with each other and the siblings. Sasha guessed these were half-siblings or cousins of Eliza. The genetic material read early adolescence.
One of the ghosts was close to the photo of Eliza which Sasha had studied at the beginning of their trip. Apparently the offspring of her step-sisters and step-brothers had no grudge against their half-aunt.
Sasha pulled a wire-frame chair near a table-tennis table and sat in it, feet up on the edge of the table. She entered brief summaries into her info slate of all the people she had ghost-viewed so far in this room. She left off the ghosts from the ballroom. They were too old to be of value, and too numerous to bother with.
Entering the top floor, Sasha encountered a young FBI agent outside the living room door. He looked vaguely college-preppie in a dark blue suit and narrow tie over a white shirt. His shoes were black and shiny.
“I’m the expert consultant Special Agent Shaker wants to view the girl’s bedroom.”
“Yes. I received instructions about you. Come in but please be quiet.”
Sasha nodded and entered as he held the door for her. There was a foyer beyond with a table near the door where she guessed mail and keys often lay. Its dark brown top gleamed empty now. Closets were set into one side of the long narrow room.
The home seemed church quiet for a moment but Sasha smelled grief and fear and anger and saw ghost images of several people. The strongest were of the three Thompsons from the photos she had seen earlier.
Then the far door of the foyer opened and a maid stepped through, a Puerto Rican mix perhaps. She was clad in a grey dress and wore a white apron.
“Hello, Luisa. Could you take Ms. Canaro to Eliza’s room? She’s supposed to examine it.”
“Yes, of course. This way please.”
Sasha nodded and followed the maid into a hallway. To the right further along the hall was a large door-less doorway. The sound of a news program on a TV came from it. Sasha guessed it opened into the living room or a den.
Luisa had gone left and Sasha followed her to another doorway. This one had a door but it was open.
Luisa gestured toward the room’s interior. “Would you like some coffee or tea? Or anything?”
In Spanish Sasha said, “No. Nothing. Thank you.”
Luisa also spoke in Spanish. “You won’t take anything away will you?”
“No, I’m just supposed look around, get a better idea of what Eliza was like.”
The woman followed Sasha into the room. She gestured at three walls. They had posters on them. One was of ballet dancers, one of horses, and one of a long-haired rather evil looking young man with a bare chest covered by a guitar.
“There are the three things she loved. I don’t understand this one.” She was looking at the man.
“I don’t either. Nor would my two sisters. My middle sister has all the boys in love with her, not the other way around. My youngest is in love with a world-famous violinist. But he’s quite handsome. Not like this.”
For a moment they stood in silent disapproval of the man’s image. Then Luisa turned to go. Sasha stopped her with a gesture.
Several weak ghost images told Sasha Eliza’s cousins had all visited her but several days ago. But another ghost image was quite strong. It was of a half-uncle who must have handled something in here. And he smelled strongly of horse.
“She loved horses. Does the family have any? Or does Eliza ride at a stable.”
“They have a horse ranch in Long Island. Some time she rides in Central Park, but only when she doesn’t have time to go to the ranch.”
“Thank you, Luisa. You’ve been very helpful. Please pardon me. I have to make a phone call.”
The maid nodded and left while Sasha was pulling her cell phone from a pocket.
Shaker answered immediately.
“There is a strong smell of horse in Eliza’s bedroom. From just yesterday. And one of her uncles visited her there.”
“Yes! Bye!” Before the circuit cut out Shaker could be heard yelling something.
Job done, Sasha looked around the room to see if she had missed anything. Everything reinforced the image of a young girl in love with ballet and wild musicians and horses.
The rest of the house yielded no clues even half as strong, except the kitchen. The uncle had sat in one of the chairs at the six-person table to one side. He had rested an arm and hand on the table and spilled coffee and wiped it up with a paper towel.
Sasha checked the master and guest bedrooms and closets and pantry and utility rooms. She passed Luisa twice doing minor cleaning jobs.
She saved the living room for last. There was an impression of the horse-smelling uncle there too.
The Thompsons sat side-by-side on the couch, watching something on a large wall screen. It was a cable news channel. Something about the Argentine space program and its use of the Caribbean Sea as a landing zone. An arrowhead-shaped vehicle was flying in the center of the screen, a white vapor trailing behind the tips of the two fat wings.
The two sat close together, maybe holding hands. Sasha hated to interrupt them.
“Pardon me. Could I ask you a few questions?”
The two turned and looked half over their shoulders. Sasha had come in from behind and from the side.
The man stood as Sasha came around the couch end. “And you are …?”
“I’m assisting Special Agent Shaker. She thought someone young with younger sisters could give her a better idea of what your daughter is like.” The lie came easily. It could even have been the truth if Sasha were someone else.
The man held out his hand and Sasha held out hers, expecting a handshake. Instead he caught her fingers and turned her hand so that he could bow over it and bestow a dry kiss to the back of her hand. He was of the old school, now dying out, which gave women European honorifics. His physiological signals read genuine welcome, if only from distraction from worry.
“I am Franklin Thompson. This is my wife Eleanor. We are pleased to give Agent Shaker any assistance she might need.”
“Hello, dear. Please call me Eleanor. And you are …?” She remained seated but extended a hand to give Sasha a handshake.
The shapechanger returned the shake. Data crashed in on her: deep sorrow, fear, anger, and a dawning surprise. Eleanor Thompson surged to her feet, took a step near Sasha, and peered closely at her face.
“Would you take off your sunglasses?”
Eleanor took a deep breath and let it out. “You’re that fashion model. The one who kills people.”
“Yes. I’m Sasha Canaro. But you make it sound like I go around all the time doing it. I only did it that once, to keep a bank robber from shooting up a street full of people.”
“Of course, dear. I’m sorry.” She sat back onto the couch, her back straight. She kept hold of the model’s hand and drew her down to sit beside her.
Sasha looked up at Franklin Thompson. He was gazing keenly at her. She was reminded of the brief bio of him which she had skimmed. He was deeply intelligent as well as ambitious.
Eleanor Thompson was also bright. And deeply in love with her husband. Any scheming gold-digging motives had long been washed away, if they had existed at all.
The woman reached for her husband. One of his hands joined hers and allowed his wife to draw him down to sit beside her.
Sasha felt embarrassed. She normally used her ability to read people’s bodies and emotions casually and without thought. This was too intimate.
Focus, Sasha! Focus.
She withdrew her hand from the all-too-intimate contact and spoke.
“Would you tell me a little about Eliza? I understand she loves ballet.”
“Oh, yes. We got her lessons when she was quite young. We just thought it good exercise. Young people nowadays, they sit too much. But she really took to it.”
To keep the woman from going on Sasha said. “Something of the same happened to me. I got very interested in gymnastics.”
“Oh, yes. And you went on to the Olympics.”
“She’s also in love with some rock star.”
Franklin Thompson looked disgusted. His wife shook her head as if to say “What can you do? Teenagers!”
Sasha repeated what she had said to Luisa about her sisters and boys.
“And she rides horses.”
“Horse mad. Maybe all teenaged girls are. I don’t remember it though.”
“Nor I. Or my sisters. Doesn’t Central Park have stables?”
“She rides there only if she can’t make it to our horse ranch. We have one on Long Island. Oh, do you think she could have gone there?”
She said this last to her husband. But he shook his head. “If she had she would have left us a note. You know how responsible Lizzie is. And there are those kidnappers.”
Almost on cue the phone rang. As if by magic the young FBI agent came into the room. He did not look so preppie and harmless now.
“Remember,” he said. “Let it ring three times to give them time downstairs to activate the equipment. Follow the script as much as possible.”
He waved at a big white paste board with large black writing printed on it in carefully legible letters. It stood beside a desk with a phone near a far wall with a large picture window overlooking Central Park. Sasha had seen it when she came into the room and ignored it.
Franklin Thompson walked quickly to a chair in front of the desk, sat in it, and counted off one, then two, then three on his fingers, gazing at the paste board all the time.
His wife had followed him and stood behind his chair, a hand laid on his shoulder. Sasha and the agent walked quietly to a position behind and to the side of the man.
Thompson took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
The sound which came from the speakerphone was a hoarse computer voice.
“We have the girl. She is still unharmed. Do you have the money?”
“We do. The insurance company delivered it at noon. Ten million dollars, unmarked, undyed, in hundreds. In a bag without a radio tracer on it. Let me talk to my daughter. I’m not giving you the money until I’m sure she’s still alive.”
“You are not in a position to make demands.”
On cue Eleanor cried out loud enough to be heard over the phone. Her reading of the “script” sounded completely natural. As it probably was.
“For God’s sake, Frank! Shut up and listen!”
“I’m not giving any money for a pig in a poke!”
He slapped the table. It sounded as if he had slapped her face.
“You stupid slut! Now, you, kidnapper. This is just a business deal to me. Let me talk to my daughter.”
“Quick! What’s the name you’re giving the foal?”
“Pretty Girl. What …?”
“Get off the line, Eliza. Now, kidnapper, how do we get the money to you?”
“You are being smart, Frank. Here’s what you do ….”
As the kidnapper read off instructions Sasha thought what big holes in logic everyone was ignoring. The kidnappers could kill their hostage as soon as they hung up the phone. Or kill her when they got the money. Or they could leave her hidden someplace where she’d die if they did not phone her location in once they got away with the money.
And the FBI delivery person was supposed not to bring a cell phone, since phones positions could be tracked. But the Bureau could and probably did have GPS installed in all their vehicles.
Ah! Here came the kidnapper demand to take care of that contingency. The delivery person was to get into a tracer-clean vehicle parked on a street. He would be watched from a distance and only phoned the location when he neared it. He was to get out of the car, strip, and drive away immediately with the money.
What stupidity! The delivery person could hide the GPS device in a body cavity. Ah, here came the condition to deal with that. They would be cavity-searched on delivery of the money and killed if such a device was found.
Why did the kidnappers not have the money dropped some place where they could pick it up and escape any pursuit?
Quietly she left the room and entered a bathroom. Opening the front of her dress she placed her cell phone on her belly and commanded her body to suck it inside her. It slowly disappeared to some really strange sensations as her various belly muscles shifted to move out of the way and back again.
She chuckled. Almost every week it seemed her subconscious delivered up some arcane ability her body had which she did not know about. She wondered what she would be like ten years from now. Or a hundred.
She sobered at that. Her parents and many of her friends would be dead by then, barring some radical medical breakthroughs. The thought of losing them saddened her immensely.
The cell phone hidden, she left the room and returned to hear the last of the phone call. She had not missed anything, having kept the bathroom door ajar just enough so her extrahuman hearing could make it out.
Franklin Thompson carefully set the phone in its cradle. He let out a long breath. Eleanor wept a few tears, then put on a brave face.
“Mr. Thompson, give me a dollar.”
“What? Very well. But why?” He took out his wallet, extracted a dollar bill, and handed it to her.
“I am now in your employ. I will deliver the money and upon my life try to ensure Eliza’s safety.”
He looked her up and down and then very intently in her face. “What guarantee do I have you won’t take the money and run? And why?”
“Because I have two sisters as dear to me as Eliza to you, and right now your daughter IS my sister. And the guarantee is the same. I would never do anything to make my sisters, or my brother, or my mother and father and friends ashamed of me.”
Eleanor Thompson was watching her intently. “I believe her, Franklin.”
He said slowly, “If you do this I will pay you a million dollars.”
“Sir, you dishonor me. Apologize or face the consequences this minute.” Rage filled Sasha. In that moment she understood the “archaic” concept of honor. And understood why Saya believed in Bushido.
Franklin Thompson said, “I apologize most sincerely.” He slowly extended his hand. Sasha took it and they shook.
“This is crazy!” The young FBI agent looked all-too-young again. “A … a … civilian isn’t up to this!”
Eleanor turned toward him, her face shining. “Don’t you know who she is?! She’s the deadliest woman on the planet.”
“That’s … That’s tabloid shit. Sorry. Sorry.”
Franklin Thompson was nodding his head. “I’m remembering what I know about you, Ms. Canaro. But these men will have guns and you will have just your bare hands, however lethal.”
“But I’ll have something else. Is there something in here you wouldn’t mind having broken or dented?”
“Frank, those two vases Gloria gave me. I hate them.” She pointed to a credenza on one side of the room. Two vases sat on top of it.
Sasha’s hands flashed to the white scarf-sash around her waist and dug out a marble for each hand. In a twisting motion first one of her arms then the other wound up and lashed forward, the motions at the very upper edge of human speed and far below Sasha’s limits. To the watchers she must have been a blur.
The two vases exploded into shards which rained onto the floor on that side of the room. The marbles shattered against the wall, moving so fast they did not bounce off the wall as she had guessed they would do.
The FBI agent stood open-mouthed, his cell phone opened on a call to his boss about the idiocy of the civilians.
Eleanor was nodding in satisfaction. Franklin nodded in agreement.
“Very well, Ms. Canaro. Now all we have to do is ensure the FBI will agree to you being my agent.”
Everyone went down to the ballroom floor where the ransom delivery and all other activity would be directed. Predictably Special Agent Shaker and the NYPD Police Commissioner refused to consider Sasha as the delivery girl.
But Franklin Thompson got his way. He did not argue. He did not shout. He merely stated over and over again that he would have his way. Finally Shaker turned to the Commissioner.
“Johnny, he’s in his legal rights. If you don’t want to have the city sued by the best lawyers in the country we have to go along with this.”
“Johnny” stalked away, leaving a parting shot of “Goddamned lawyers.”
Shaker turned to the Thompsons and Sasha. “Hah! He forgot I’m an accountant.”
Sasha beckoned Eleanor over and handed her sash of marbles over to her when she untied it. Then she kicked off her red high heels and eeled out of her dress. In her translucent bra and panties she replaced her weapon belt.
“Lucky that I picked out a white scarf. From a distance it will almost blend in with my skin.” Her skin was as perfectly alabaster as when she had risen from the dead.
It wasn’t just her skin that caused almost every man in the room, even the surly Commissioner, to stare at her. Sasha’s muscles were extra-humanly efficient so did not need to be bulky to be incredibly strong. But she had spent well over a decade building their lithe strength and she had not reduced their size. They were obvious under a smooth layer of fat, just enough not to seem like an anatomical chart.
Even more was the way she moved in the slightest way. She was poetry in motion. Even when she stood the poetry remained, for it seemed as if she were poised to flow into instant action.
And that was even before one considered that she was gorgeous.
There was a collective sigh of regret as she once again slipped her gold and red dress over her body.
Except from the women, who made up about a fourth of the law enforcement officials there. Instead of regret there was satisfaction. Every one was dedicated to fighting crime. Every one had fought the belief that women were physically inferior to men. Seeing Sasha, as womanly beautiful as a woman could be, still be so obviously dangerous was like seeing a dream come true.
The only immune man in the room was Franklin Thompson. He seemed as proud of her as if she was his own daughter. His wife cuddled against him, her satisfaction taking a slightly different form.
“See, dear, didn’t I tell you she is the deadliest woman on the planet?”
After the few seconds of voyeuristic stillness the professionals moved into high gear. Sasha went to stand by the large canvas bag of money and the Thompsons joined her, Eleanor carrying the “beautiful shoes” Sasha had discarded. The woman had to be dissuaded from dashing upstairs to find something for the shapechanger to wear. A finger drawn over Sasha’s foot soles (instantly changed to be leather-tough) persuaded her Sasha did not need shoes.
Four uniformed NYPD officers took up guard around the three and the money, each carrying an M5 assault carbine at port arms. They stayed with Sasha and the money, or at least the money, after she kissed the Thompson’s cheeks and entered the elevator to the garage. Into the elevator crowded Agent Shaker and the Police Commissioner, restored to better humor now that the action had begun. He carried a shotgun.
His glimpse of Sasha in near-naked glory might have something to do with that, too, she surmised.
At the garage the two moved aside to let the first two policemen exit, carbines now leveled to take on any ambush. They were met by three ‑‑ black! ‑‑ SUVs, the drivers standing holding the doors open.
The first two guards waited for Shaker to take the driver’s seat of the middle vehicle, Sasha to take the seat behind her, and the Commissioner to take the front passenger seat. He was literally riding shotgun, Sasha thought, eyeing the weapon he had brought from upstairs.
With the middle vehicle ready to move the two guards first out of the elevator deployed to the front SUV and the last two out to the back SUV. All three vehicles smoothly moved to an exit aisle and out of the garage, the exit unblocked before them, sirens and flashers briefly opening a hole in the traffic.
On the Hudson River highway heading south Helen Shaker spoke over her shoulder.
“We’ve got an air-camouflaged unmanned surveillance helicopter up so high it can’t be seen. Maybe the kidnappers know about it and have plans to deal with it, but I doubt it. It’s a new acquisition on loan to the Bureau. We’re going to get these fuckers.”
“Yeah. Now all I have to do is keep Eliza safe. If she’s even alive still. And survive contact with an unknown number of kidnappers willing to kill.”
The agent chuckled. “Oh, you’ll survive. Whether the kidnappers will survive contact with you, that’s in doubt.”
She sobered. “But I agree. I’m worried about the girl. Logically these guys should keep her safe until they have the money. But I’m not sure they are operating out of logic.”
The Police Commissioner nodded soberly and everyone was quiet. Until Helen Shaker received another phone call. It was brief.
“Well, a piece of good luck. That call was from the company that makes the surveillance copter. They have a vertical takeoff plane out over Long Island and they’ve offered their services. So we’ve got a second set of eyes on the situation.”
Sasha was observing the traffic on all sides, looking for suspicious vehicles. She was sure her two companions were doing the same. She was letting her mind idle in the present, not worrying or thinking about much. She had learned this long ago during tense competitions. It was not a shapechanger skill.
A thought surfaced.
“How come the police are donating so many people? This is the FBI’s jurisdiction, isn’t it?”
“True. Though we are legally bound to ‘give aid to any enforcement agency when requested, if we have assets available to answer the request’. Actually it’s because the Thompsons are rich as hell and they have friends who are rich as hell.”
He was silent a moment, after a brief glance in her direction still watching the traffic about them.
“I don’t like it. I came from poor and many people I know are still poor. But it’s a fact of life. I know you idealistic young people may think it corrupt ‑‑”
“I don’t,” said Sasha. “‑‑ but we have to live with the real world, not the ideal world. Though to be fair the rich, the best of them anyway, do give back a lot of money. Not a lot compared to what they’ve got, but a lot to the rest of us.”
By now the SUV was nearing the tip of Manhattan. The FBI agent’s phone chimed.
The speaker phone in the car issued forth the computerized voice of the kidnappers. “Take the Highway 78 exit and cross the Manhattan Bridge.”
But the kidnapper had hung up.
On the other side of the bridge another phone call sent them north on the Brooklyn Queens Freeway. Smoothly the little three-car convoy turned onto the new path. They car phones of the three vehicles were all slaved to Shaker’s cell phone, positioned in a holder in the dash of her SUV.
“Why the Hell are they sending us this way?” The Commissioner said. “We could have gone straight across Long Island Expressway!”
“Maybe they’re just fucking with us for the fun of it. Bossing the police around, you know?”
Sasha felt a slight shock. Alicia only cursed when she was getting upset. Was Helen Shaker getting upset, too? An increase in her nose’s sensitivity and a sniff of the air told her No.
“Or they may think this will make us lose a little self-control.”
The Commissioner sat a little further back in his seat. No one was going to make him lose control.
Sasha smiled to herself. Helen was one smart lady.
“Hey, Sasha. Johnny has two kids who are athletes too.”
“Oh? In what disciplines?” She leaned forward and put her forearms on the back of the front seat. If Helen thought the policeman needed calming she would go along with the need. And ‑‑ she smiled to herself ‑‑ she would also go along with Helen’s plan to distract and calm Sasha.
Not that she needed calming. It was already coming over her, the feeling she had learned long ago when her path through a competition was set as if on rails. All she had to do was follow it to its end. And heaven help anything or anyone who got in her way.
At the Long Island Expressway they were directed to turn east.
By now the Commissioner was perfectly calm himself. He began to ask Sasha how it felt to go to the Olympics. Perhaps he thought he was collaborating with Shaker to help the rookie, Sasha, get over a difficult time.
And so the circle went, she understood, each helping the other, strengthening their resolve and building subtle communication links.
As they came near the huge Flushing Meadows Corona Park they got another phone call. They were to exit and halt on a specific park street.
The park was easily visible as they came near it. It ran north and south and was several miles long and about a half-mile wide. The three vehicles slowed, peeled off into an exit ramp, and rolled down to a peaceful side street. Off in the distance some couples were playing tennis, whacking tennis balls back and forth.
The old battered red car was easily seen where it had been described to be. The three SUVs halted a hundred feet behind it. The (female) driver of the lead vehicle approached it warily, a stubby submachine gun swiveling to point in several directions. The two M5-carrying police covered her with their longer-range weapons.
The FBI agent investigated the car, reporting that a cell phone was laying in the driver’s seat as it was supposed to be and keys were in the ignition. She pulled out a mirror on a telescoping rod and inspected the undersides of the car, an attached flashlight giving her a view. Then she popped the hood and trunk and inspected inside them.
There were still plenty of places to hide a bomb, Sasha knew. But this at least gave them some reassurance that she could safely drive the car.
Besides, a bomb and a wreck would scatter ten million dollars all over the place. Pretty good insurance, she thought.
“OK, dear. Time to do a strip.”
Sasha got out of the car, pulled the canvas bag with the money out with her, and set it on the ground. Stepping away from it she slid off her dress and threw it into the SUV. She lifted her arms out to her side and slowly turned a complete rotation, sticking her tongue out at the same time. All as ordered.
Then she spread her legs and squatted, supposedly to insure any cell phone clenched between her legs fell to the ground.
Privately Sasha suspected this was all a bluff. She did not think anyone was actually observing her. She had zoomed her eyes out to their 3x binocular limit as she turned. And the female FBI agent had plied an electronic detector to ensure no one was using some sort of spycam.
Done with the required act Sasha picked up the money bag and slung it into the front passenger seat of the red vehicle. Then she got in, started the car and drove away, the kidnapper’s cell phone left inside on, its tracker off and its alarm volume turned up full.
As soon as she got on the freeway heading east she got a phone call. So at least one kidnapper was watching somewhere in line of sight of the freeway.
The robot voice then proceeded to guide her to a series of local streets and onto and off the highway, presumably to throw off any shadowing tails or to make them visible to the kidnappers. Then she was directed to take several northbound side roads of the Van Wyck Freeway on the further side of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
As soon as her path seemed set for a little while Sasha forced her cell phone out of her belly. The motion of the foreign object inside her still seemed strange, but less so than the first time. Likely she would get used to it eventually.
Holding the phone in the hand nearest the window she pressed the pre-set number for Helen Shaker. When a glance at the phone display screen showed her she had a connection she placed her arm on the opened window sill of the car, the phone clasped so that it would be invisible to someone looking at her through binoculars.
A mosquito voice came from the phone, audible to Sasha only because she had her hearing sensitivity turned up high. Any (unlikely) bug the kidnappers had placed in the car or their cell phone could not have heard it.
“Sasha? Is that you?”
For the benefit of the maybe-bug Sasha grumbled, “That fucking FBI bitch. You’ll be fine. They want the money. It’s just business to them.“
“It IS you! Where did you hide your cell?”
“She should just stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
Silence, then a giggle, then “Be sure to ditch the phone before they see you. They said they were going to do a cavity search.”
“I should just drop this money out the window and go home. Or take off for France. They hate extraditing to the US.”
“Good. You can hang up now. We have a lock on your signal.”
Sasha shut off her phone and sighed loudly. “Who am I kidding? I’ve got to go through with this. That broom-up-his-butt old man would put a contract out on me fast as shit. He knows who I am.”
For almost an hour Sasha continued to receive travel instructions and weave an improbable path toward the Thompson horse ranch.
Finally she turned off a local road onto a packed-gravel road, passed under an arched sign reading THOMPSON LODGE, and headed toward the back of the low ranch-style house where an edge of some stables could be seen around one corner.
Immediately Sasha could see why the kidnappers thought they could get away with their money. A small white passenger plane sat on a blacktop runway, its single engine idling.
She drove to a parking area off to the side of the two buildings, parked her car, and slid her cell back into her belly.
At first nothing happened. Then she saw movement inside the mosquito-screened porch. Four men exited, the last Reginald Thompson. The skinny blond was pulling Eliza along by a hand on her upper arm.
The man in front of “Reggie” was a short muscular Irishman, the sole caretaker and horseman for the lodge during the Thanksgiving and winter months. He walked with his hands down but hanging out to his sides to show they were empty. The reason for that was the pistol in Reggie’s hand, pointing at the ground right now.
The two men in front were the Ugly and the Handsome versions of some middle-eastern family with a big contribution centuries back from Mongolian invaders.
Sasha did not wait for them to approach her. She got out of the red car, pulled the money bag out with her, and began walking toward them. The two groups approached and stopped a few yards from each other.
The kidnappers ogled her near-naked body. The Irishmen looked at the back of the Ugly brother, angry and watchful. Sasha hoped she would not get him killed when she made her move. But she was sure if she did nothing he would be killed. The man would just have to take his chances.
Handsome walked around her and glanced inside the car. Then he returned, eyeing her carefully.
“Put the money down there.” He pointed in front of the men.
“You,” he ordered the Irishman, “Open the bag.”
The man came forward, his demeanor turning instantly to obsequious. Sasha did not believe it for a second.
He unzipped the top of the bag and opened it. No flash-bangs or other riot explosions happened.
“Count it,” Handsome ordered. Ugly pushed the man aside and knelt before the bag. He began to lift out bound stacks of hundred dollar bills, riffle them, and set them on the ground.
After a few minutes of this he said, “Fuck this!” and upended the bag. A few moments of random inspection and he said, “It’s all there.”
“Fool!” his (likely) brother said. “Is it marked? Is it real?”
Sasha noticed that the Irishman was standing quietly, seemingly fearfully to the side. Good. He might be safe from stray bullets if she was not fast enough. Eliza was behind Reggie, who had tucked his pistol into his waistband.
Handsome inspected several of the stacks, using a small magnifying glass. Finally he told his brother to put it all in the bag. Then he turned to Reggie and said, “Do the girl. Now!”
Sasha went to slow time as Handsome began to turn back toward her and raise his pistol.
Sasha exploded the words out of her mouth “LIZZ-I-E! D-O-W-W-N-N-N!” as she took two lightning steps forward, captured Handsome’s gun hand in a grip which snapped his bones like glass, jerked the pistol from his grasp, spun away from him and backed into him, crushed his heart with an elbow like a pile-driver, spun to face Ugly, spinning Handsome away to the ground, shot Ugly’s gun and gun hand into uselessness, shot him in the belly so the would-be child rapist! child killer! would die slowly and agonizingly, and targeted Reggie with her deadly gaze.
There was no need. The horseman had Reggie’s gun hand pushed out to the side and was crashing a knee into Reggie’s crotch again and again. Reggie would soon die from his ruptured testicles if not from a perforated abdominal cavity.
“That’s enough!” she called. “He’s done. He’s done for.”
The man stopped and let Reggie fall to his knees then to his face on the ground. “Bastard!” the man spat at him, then turned to Eliza.
“Lizzie? Baby? You all right?”
Eliza was standing up from lying flat on the ground. She gazed at her uncle with hate. She walked up to him and kicked him in his side. Given the man was in a universe of pain already he likely felt no added pain.
“Kevin? What about you?”
Kevin horseman held his hands out to his sides. “Me? Right as rain! Thanks to this lady.”
Sasha was not paying attention. Her focus was on the small plane, her pistol pointed toward it.
But the pilot had no interest sticking around to face such an abrupt and deadly foe. His engine was revving louder and louder and the small white plane was moving. It accelerated and the tail lifted off the ground as it sped faster and faster. Near the runway’s end it tilted back on its haunches and lifted off, curving away toward Long Island Sound close beyond the ranch.
A scream like an angry demon jerked everyone’s attention to the left. A bright streak like a meteorite’s trail slashed down toward the fleeing plane, ending in a puff of black smoke well short of the craft. Arrowing down behind the missile came a finless dart. It slowed then halted to one side of the would-be escapee.
There was no sign of weapons except small holes running back on the craft’s visible side. They looked like one-half of a sneer which hid teeth. Out of those holes surely could come missiles as terrifying as the one which had been detonated short of impact on the plane.
A closer inspection by Sasha’s 3x binocular sight showed that both ends of the dart were blunt, the rear more blunt than the front. A transparent cockpit showed a bare-headed pilot lifting a gloved hand and pointing back toward the lodge. As if in emphasis the dart pivoted slightly to the right on an invisible axis, then pointed directly back at the plane, then repeated the gesture twice more.
The white plane began a U-turn out to sea and turned to approach the runway. It slowly came in to land.
Sasha walked toward the vehicle as it quit rolling and settled onto its landing gear. Then its engine quit, the propeller wound down. A door in the side of the plane opened and a man climbed carefully out and dropped to the ground. He had his hands in the air even though Sasha had the pistol tucked into her white sash.
“If you make a threatening move of any kind you are a dead man,” she said. It was a simple statement of fact, not a threat. The pilot obviously understood that.
A loud hissing sound brought the two opponents attention to one side. The dart was low, approaching slowly. Beneath it four wavering nearly invisible streams of air were blowing dust and small objects away from below it. Then when the dart dropped to within a couple of feet from the ground the air streams eased to nothing. Yet the vehicle still floated on some invisible cushion.
Four slots opened in the bottom of the craft and small wheels emerged at the end of four long legs. They touched the ground, the wheels flattened, and the dart settled to stillness.
Close up, motionless, it was the size of a city bus, all dark blue with a broad light blue stripe from nose to rear. A screaming bird within a white circle adorned the side they could see. Below that was the slanted words Bluebird Security Agency.
A door just behind the pilot’s canopy popped out and slid back. A short ladder fell out and locked so that its bottom was near the ground. Out of it came Special Agent Helen Shaker. Then several more dark-suited FBI agents.
A second door opened further back. More agents came out.
One of the agents came over and took custody of the pilot. Sasha went to meet Shaker. The woman stared at her.
“We saw some of it from up there. You couldn’t wait for us?”
“I didn’t know you were coming. They were just about to kill us.”
Shaker sighed. “I would have preferred a trial. But …”
She turned and walked to where Eliza was sitting, her back to the bodies, looking over the miraculous aircraft. She knelt before the girl.
“Ms. Thompson, I’m Special Agent Helen Shaker of the FBI. Are you all right?”
“Now I am. She saved me. And Kevin. They were just about to shoot me. And I had to pretend all day to be too stupid and innocent to know what was happening.” Her face crinkled up but she didn’t cry.
Sasha came over and sat cross-legged beside the girl. “Hi. I’m Sasha Canaro. Your father sent me.” The two shook hands. Sasha felt keeping everything on a business-like everyday basis would help the girl more quickly recover from her ordeal. To help the process along she sent a complex set of commands to the girl’s body, but the most important one was just to get healthier.
“My father! Mom!” The girl jumped up. “I need a cell phone!”
Shaker stood with her. “I called them as soon as I saw you were safe. Come inside. They’ve got a videophone in the jet.
“Sasha! I’ve got your dress inside.”
She wanted to see the inside of the Bluebird craft. But she had other business first.
She walked over to Kevin sitting a bit dejectedly on the steps down from the screened-in porch. She sat beside him. For a minute or two they watched the busy agents. In the distance they heard sirens and a helicopter approaching. She hoped it was not a news copter.
“Hi, I’m Sasha Canaro.” She offered her hand. He took it but did not shake it.
He grinned at her. “No, you’re not. You’re the banshee.”
A few dabs of Irish folklore came to her. “No, I think that’s the missile they fired. I think the sound is deliberate to warn people more could come.”
He laughed, squeezed her hand but still did not let go. She read his health ‑‑ very good ‑‑ and gave it a boost.
“You can only be the Morrigan.” He finally let go. She gave him a questioning look.
“An Morh Rioghain. The Great Queen. Cu Chulain’s Crow. The harbinger of death. A great warrior.”
Great effort made Sasha greatly hungry.
“Do you cook, Kevin? I need something to eat. And soon.”
“Aye, I’m an angel in the kitchen. But I’m a little weary of cooking, having done it for those buffoons for three days. There’s a seafood restaurant nearby. I could drive you.”
“It’s a deal. Why don’t you clean up a bit? I’ll go get my dress and take care of a few things. Then we’ll eat seafood. And later tonight you can cook for me.”
His face lit up. He jumped up and was inside in an instant.
Inside the Bluebird craft only the back third was blocked off. It seemed small to hold the fuel the vehicle must use. Just forward of the rear bulkhead was a small kitchen and restroom. The four rows of four seats with a central aisle looked luxurious. The side windows were deep and double-paned. She wondered just how high the vehicle could fly to require such windows.
One jarring note were the two rear doors on each side. There was a complex arm mounting two heavy machine guns. The weapons could be rotated down and aimed out the sides. There was no ammunition for the guns.
Maybe this was a demonstrator, a selling tool.
Shaker must have been watching for Sasha out the pilot’s canopy. She leaned out of the cockpit and threw the shapechanger her dress. Then she continued looking over the shoulder of the pilot and Eliza, sitting at the controls.
“Yes, you can fly her back to the city,” the pilot said. “They made the controls intuitive. But you have to get this right before I’ll let you.
“Now, you’ll tap this to turn the engines on when we leave. Check engines. See this scrolling info? Any oranges or reds you have to diagnose and get fixed. But everything will be green.
“So when you lift up on the yoke the machine goes up. Yes, just like that. Move it down. It goes down. Push forward to speed up, back to slow down. Tilt and the plane goes in the direction of turn….”
Helen came out of the cockpit when Sasha, slipping her dress on, beckoned to her.
“Try to minimize my part in this as much as you can, OK? Don’t mention my name in a press release. Call me a security employee of the Thompson family. That’s the truth. And play up the part of Kevin if you can. He pretended to Eliza they were safe, and to the kidnappers that he was cowed. And …”
“OK. OK. I can’t promise anything but I’ll try …”
“I’m staying the night with Kevin. I think he needs an antidote to what he’s gone through. And I think he may really have saved Lizzie’s life.”
“And he’s awfully cute, isn’t he?”
Sasha smiled. “He is.”
She looked around the insides of the craft.
“I never even heard of anything like this.”
“The pilot said it’s a research aircraft. Cost close to a billion dollars. The fuel is from a ‘superbattery’ and it flies on ‘induced paramagnetism’.”
“I want one, when they get a sedan model that costs, oh, a million dollars.”
Shaker smiled smugly. “They’re going to loan an ‘AirSUV’ to the Bureau for ‘marketing purposes’. And I get first dibs.”
Inevitably Sasha’s part in the kidnap rescue was discovered. Groups of citizens viewed with alarm. Others defended her ferociously. But the news was a week old and there were new emergencies and outrages and happy surprises in the celebrities worlds.
Work picked up. Not much. The fashion world was very self-absorbed and it had adapted to Sasha. She was just another eccentric model.
She and Kevin were an item for a week or two and then their separate lives pulled them apart.
Two weekends later Sasha received an invitation to a private dinner with the Thompsons. She accepted. She wondered how Eliza was doing. And she had liked the Thompsons. Underneath their clichéd appearance were real and likable people.
“So you liked the meal?” Eliza and Sasha had emailed back and forth on the subject of the menu for tonight and Eliza should be well satisfied. But this was the third time she had asked the question.
Eleanor Thompson said with a smile, “If the quantity she ate is any indicator of quality of experience, Sasha certainly did.”
Sasha nodded, took a sip of a savory Argentine wine, and patted her belly. “Stuffed. Just enough.” Though she could have eaten twice as much. Her body converted food beyond the immediate essentials to fat, highly compressed so that it served partly as body armor and partly as reservoir for when she exercised her near-superhuman powers.
The four of them were in the landscaped garden on top of the Thompson Building. Fairy lights made the garden a fairy land. On all sides Manhattan at night towered and glittered and winked in the chill autumn air. Air that was warmed all around the table by heat lamps.
The table was lit from above by seeming candle-light. The parents sat at each end of the six-seat table. Eliza and Sasha were across from each other in the middle. Each had a favorite after-dinner drink near at hand or in hand.
“I’ve been talking to Kevin,” Franklin said. “I put him onto an attorney who assures me he can speed up his Green Card application. And I’ve invested in improving the ranch. Kevin argues, and the facts seem to support, that he can increase the clients of the ranch with some modest investments in upgrading the facilities and advertising. So we’ll see what happens, increase or no. Then he can bring his sister over from Ireland. His parents are happy where they are.”
He swirled his brandy and sipped it. “Commissioner Johnson got an upgrade on a key information facility he has been trying to get funded. I and a few of my friends put on a fund raiser for it ‑‑ which Ellie helped put together, Thank God. I’m awful at that kind of organizing.”
Eleanor spoke up. “And I talked with that nice Helen Shaker of the FBI. It seems that one of her kids is deeply into ballet. And since Eliza has given up on it there is a scholarship opening up.”
Given up? Sasha eyed the girl suspiciously. Eliza looked angelic. Sasha knew that look. Gia was especially good at it.
“And then there’s you. That’s a real puzzle.”
“Well, quit trying to solve it or you will ‑‑ seriously annoy me.” Sasha turned to Eliza. “So what is this new enthusiasm?”
The girl leaped up and pulled Sasha up from her chair and toward the elevator. Laughing Sasha made an apologetic face at the girl’s parents.
In minutes the two were downstairs and headed toward Eliza’s room.
“Ta da!” On the wall where a ballet poster had been was now a giant one of various students of Judo exercising or practicing in Judo gis. In the center was a slightly larger one of Sasha.
“Oh, Eliza. Do you know how hard learning Judo is?”
“I was good at ballet. I worked to be.”
“No matter how good at Judo you get you can’t defend yourself from everyone. It’s not magic.”
“I know that. I investigated it. A lot.” Sasha knew that look, calm, certain, determined. She had seen it for most of her life, from the inside. Eliza had set out on a voyage and obstacles were only for sailing around or trekking over.
“OK. Here’s what I’ll do. When I get back from Christmas in LA we’ll train in the nearest dojo. I’ll evaluate how you do and how much you can do. Then I’ll help find you a sensei. You know what that is?”
“More than that. A master teacher. People can be good at stuff and still be not-so-good teachers.
“Come to think of it, I know a good resource. That FBI woman. She has a black belt in Judo, a second level black belt in karate, and who knows what else. She also puts on a weekly workshop for advanced students.”
Sasha put an arm around Eliza’s shoulders and steered her back toward the living room where her parents had retired to a couch.
Perhaps an hour later when it was time to leave the Thompsons stopped her at the door to the elevator. Eliza hugged her around the waist, said “Goodnight” and stood back. Eleanor hugged her. Then Franklin said, “May I hug you?”
Sasha stepped forward into his arms. “Always can use a good hug!”
Standing back from a definitely good hug he put a hand on each of her shoulders. “From now on you are one of the family. If you ever have need come to us. And don’t be a stranger.”
Blinking tears Sasha Canaro entered the elevator and punched the button to take her down to the taxi waiting to take her home.