STAR FINDER

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Chapter 13: The Bittersweet Taste of Freedom

Basking in a sugary paradise, Lilly looked for a table. She was unaware of the threesome—two older boys and a busty blonde wedged between—who had walked up behind her. She crashed into the group. Her sundae landed upside down in the center of the blonde’s chest. “Yikes!”

Shrinking back, Lilly’s cheeks reddened

The girl screamed. Unfortunately, she was wearing a low-cut dress.

It was everything Lilly had wanted to avoid, a monumental social disaster. All eyes fell on her.

One of the boys dove for the napkins. He handed the blonde a fist full.

Lilly scrambled to do the same and fumbled with the dispenser. Packed tight, the napkins shredded as she pulled them out. Armed with the thin papers she wiped down the blonde. “I am so sorry. Please let me help you. I’m very sorry.”

The florescent pink spandex dress hugged the girl like a second skin. Confetti-like shreds dangled from her curves. The smeared fudge stood out like mud on a wedding dress. Add to that globs of ice cream gathering in the girl’s cleavage like a spring lake between two mountains, and it was no wonder the blonde was devastated.

A gummy bear dangled from the exposed edge of her sparkly red bra. Lilly tried to remove it and got her hand slapped.

“You’re making it worse!” The blonde’s blue eyes filled. “You stupid slut! Get away!”

The heavier boy barked, “Don’t touch her! Hands off my lady!” As if on guard duty, he stepped in front of the bleached blonde and shoved Lilly.

“I know how to remove stains,” Lilly offered.

“Not cool! Back off kid!” He murmured to the tarnished blonde as he herded her over to a far corner near the restrooms.

Lilly followed. “Tem? You are Tem Bailey. I know you. I live in your apartment building. You’re Zilla’s eldest son.” She had passed the sour-faced nineteen-year-old many times on the stairs and in the halls. Her father never allowed her to speak to him.

“Get lost. Don’t know you.”

“True, we have never been properly introduced.” Lilly stretched out her hand, paper stuck on her fingers. “How do you do? Lillian Randall. I live on the top floor, 3B, with my dad. I know your little brother, Bobby. Well, sort of.”

Olive skin, cherubic cheeks, squat, with hound dog muddy brown eyes, Tem stepped closer. He hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his low-riding jeans and looked Lilly up and down as if she were a pastry in a baker’s window.

The blonde tugged on Tem’s elbow and whined, “Tem…baby.”

Without shifting his gaze from Lilly, Tem asked, “Bavol, cous, get my lady some more napkins. And you freak, put your filthy hand away. You’re disgusting.”

Lilly’s face and neck flared. She wished she were invisible.

Bavol leaned in over Tem’s shoulder, and asked, “Since when do you have a little brother?” Older than his cousin, Bavol was the exact reverse in appearance. Light where Tem was dark. Tall and lean muscled, with hard steel gray eyes. His pointy chin sported a soul patch. A fresh pink scar on the bridge of his nose telegraphed a recent fight.

Tem’s fingers raked through his gelled brown hair as he whispered in Bavol’s ear.

They snorted.

“Oh yeah. Bobby,” guffawed Tem. “You’re the brainiac who found him when he wandered off. That was, what three months ago?” Bavol and Tem chuckled and elbowed each other.

“Brainiac?” Lilly nodded. “Is there a joke involved here?”

“No,” said Tem. “Wait. Yeah. You—you’re the joke.”

“Well, then I am sorry you think that, but I must point out your statement was inaccurate. I found your brother asleep in a heating duct in the basement. That’s a lot more serious than wandering off. And it was four months and two days ago to be precise.”

“Geez. You sound like a computer. What did you do to your hair? You’ve got weird red spots on your face? You contagious?”

Tired of being ignored in her hour of need, the blonde tapped one opened-toed spike-heeled shoe. One hip cocked out. “What about me? Don’t you care what she did? My new dress is ruined.”

Lilly noted the little pout thing the girl did with her lips and filed it for future reference.

“Tem, baby…”

“Sure I do.” Tem patted her back, took her chin in his ringed fingers, brought her closer and licked fudge off the side of her neck as she giggled. “Lillian Randall, is paying for the dress?”

“That is not necessary. All those stains will come out in the wash. If you insist, I will be glad to have it cleaned and returned to her.”

The blonde stiffened. “I laid out two hundred bucks for this at Nordstrom’s. I want a new one.”

“If you paid that much for made-in-Taiwan spandex…how can I put this so you will understand…ah, I believe you were ripped off.” Those on-line fashion sites she read were now paying off. She knew what she was talking about. “The material is inferior. Clearly it is an assembly line garment from a sweatshop. The style is last year’s. I will pay to have the dress cleaned, but that is all I am willing to do. Will that make your gaji happy, Tem?”

“Is she making fun of me?” The blonde cocked one perfect arched eyebrow. “And how does she know your mother’s pet name for me?”

“Oh, sorry. Did you think gaji was a term of endearment?” Lilly smirked, moved closer to the blonde to deliver her lecture. “A gaji girl. The family wouldn’t allow it. Romani boys may date but never marry your type. A gypsy boy must have a virgin bride from within his own culture.”

The blonde froze. “Say that again.” She looked from Lilly to Tem, eyes like daggers.

“Shut up, creep,” Tem’s eyes bore into Lilly. “Baby, come here. Let me explain.”

In a blur of bouncing pink spandex, the blonde sprang for the bathroom.

Tem scowled and came nose-to-nose with Lilly. His left hand crossed his body ready to strike. Older and larger, he out-weighed her by at least a hundred thirty pounds.

Mr. Schaffer paused as he cleaned tables. “What’s going on over here, Tem? You causing trouble?”

Tem’s arm collapsed. “Nothing. Accident.” He pointed at Lilly. “She spilled her sundae. We’re helping her.” When Mr. Schaffer was out of sight Tem grabbed Lilly’s bicep and shoved her into a dark corner.

Bavol followed and stood in front of them to block any prying eyes.

Lilly attempted to leave.

Tem shoved her back once, twice. Her small body bounced like a yo-yo between wall and Tem.

“Stay! No more fancy talk.” Tem’s spittle splattered her face. It reeked of tobacco and booze.

“When my girl comes back you are going to tell her you’ll pay for the dress.” He took hold of both of Lilly’s shoulders, thumbs pressed into her collarbones. Body-to-body he locked her in place.

Nose wrinkled, chin lifted, Lilly refused to face him. It sickened her to be that close, to smell his sweat. “This is inappropriate behavior. I am asking politely. Please…take your hands off me.”

“How much are you carrying, freak?”

There was that cruel word again. It sliced into her as if it had been a real sword. Every muscle in her small body clenched. Self-control teetered on the edge of rage. Eyes narrowed, she turned on Tem. “Inflicting pain is assault and asking me for money is extortion. You could go to jail. I will not cave into your brutality. There will be no money. Now I insist you let me go. I do not want to hurt you. I have been trained in the martial arts. Jiu-jitsu to be precise.”

“Did you hear that Bavol? She knows Juicy Fruit.” They both laughed.

Bavol said, “The kid’s got some heat. I’ll give her that.”

Hips swaying, Tem’s girlfriend stomped out of the restroom. She latched onto Tem’s arm, snuggled up. “He’ll take care of you.”

Tem nibbled the blonde’s cheek, took off his leather jacket, and draped it around her shoulders. She cuddled in. “Later baby.”

Lilly saw a large playing card, a joker, on the back of the jacket and the words ‘Gypsy Jesters.’ Had that gang been mentioned on the news?

“I don’t like people that make my girlfriend cry,” said Tem as he pinched the back of Lilly’s neck. “Shush.” He hissed. “Quiet now.” He checked around to make sure no one was watching. His other hand clamped onto her wrist wrenching her arm behind her back. Her arm had two options, dislocation, or fracture.

“You will pay the two hundred? Say it!” Tem gritted his teeth and increased the upward thrust.

“I will not acquiesce to your bully—” Pain cut her off.

“Check her pockets, cous,” Tem ordered Bavol.

Bavol’s hands crawled into her front pocket. “Ninety-four and change. That’s it. It’s not enough,” he said through his thin lips.

Tem took Lilly’s money and handed it to the blonde. “Maybe we should take her outside? What do you think cous?”

The assault shocked and insulted her. What had her dad said? Don’t think—react. “I am not going anywhere with you!”

Her free arm went high, then the elbow snapped down onto Tem’s arm. Breaking his grip, she found her center of gravity and fell low in a defensive posture. Tem had left his mark on her wrist. His fingerprints had already turned blue. The sight of it infuriated her.

“Your weight is your weakness.” It was a thought spoken aloud, not meant as a taunt. But she was ready. Tem stepped forward. She jabbed—a quick strike, to his ribs.

They reversed positions. Now Tem’s back was against the wall. He sucked air, rubbed his bruised side. “You callin’ me fat?” Like an enraged gorilla with arms wide, Tem gave a guttural growl and lunged.

Lilly held her ground, let him come. When he was within striking distance she twirled, delivered a kick that caught him in the groin.

Tem collapsed holding his crotch. “Bitc…!”

“Tem, baby!” shrieked the blonde.

Fist cocked, Bavol yanked Lilly around. “Come on, ninja witch!”

Before he could swing and land a blow, Lilly’s heel crashed down on Bavol’s instep. Bones crunched. Bavol cried out. She whipped around, performed a perfect leg sweep. He fell hard. The back of his head hit the tile floor. He stayed down.

People sitting at tables moved back. A few families had safer places to go and exited.

The blonde gawked.

Mr. Schaffer rushed over holding a broom like a club. When he saw that Lilly was winning, he stepped back and didn’t interfere. Smirking, he watched with his “weapon” at the ready.

Recovered, Tem roared back. Preparing to body slam Lilly, he locked both arms around her tiny waist.

He was off balance. Lilly didn’t resist, but bent with his weight. They both hit the floor. She rolled off first and jumped up onto her feet poised and centered.

Tem got up heaving like he had sprinted a mile. He hiked up his pants and attacked.

Knowing she had him, Lilly smiled.

Tem staggered, lifted his meaty hands as if they weighted fifty pounds each.

Her hands in the shape of snake’s heads, Lilly struck out repeatedly. Neck, chest, and arms. Tapping and striking she circled Tem.

“Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Tem dodged, but the snakes followed. He growled and drooled like a wounded animal. In a final burst of rage, he charged her.

A wild swing ricocheted and caught her ear. She blocked the blow, waited for the proper moment, and then caught him with a sharp kick to the gut. He folded. She grabbed his arm, and performed a perfect reverse wrist throw.

Tem tumbled and sprawled on the floor.

The accolades started low and gained momentum. One couple, she was blonde and he was swarthy sat wide-eyed and smiling as if pleased by what had happened. Many of the shop’s customers, stood and applauded. Embarrassed and frightened, Lilly turned to run away, but the shop owner caught her.

Mr. Schaffer said, “Please, it’s okay. Wait. Please. Tem and his cousin Bavol are always trouble. They bully people. Drive my customers away. It’s okay. What you did…thank you.” He bowed.

Lilly blushed, not used to the attention.

Mr. Schaffer stood over Tem. “A little girl wiped the floor with you. Street cred just got flushed down the toilet. You’re nothing now. Don’t ever come back in here.” He patted Lilly’s shoulder, and then put a protective arm around her.

Lilly got another standing ovation.

With Bavol and the blonde’s help, Tem stood and approached Mr. Schaffer. “You can’t kick me out. This is a public place old man.”

Brandishing his broom, Mr. Schaffer suggested, “You want me to call the police Tem?”

“I didn’t start no trouble.” Tem jabbed a chunky finger at Lilly. “You all saw it.”

“Sure, the police are going to believe that.” He pointed at Lilly. “This little kid put you two goons down.” Everyone laughed. “Anybody see this charming child,” he raised Lilly’s arm as if declaring her the winner, “attack these thugs?”

Tem and Bavol had no defenders.

“Get out!” Mr. Schaffer shook his broom.

“Be careful old man, you could be burning your house down.”

Lilly’s ears perked as Mr. Schaffer leaned close to Tem and murmured. “I’ll be putting tonight’s video tape in my safety deposit box. If I see as much as a cigarette burn on my floor or you lighting a match anywhere near my shop…you’re going to jail.” He chuckled. “Besides, I don’t think you want the world to see you getting your ass kicked on YouTube.”

As he backed away, Tem’s eyes stayed anchored to Lilly. He collected his blonde and shoved her toward the door. Bavol followed.

Tem made a slicing gesture across his neck.

Lilly’s fingers drifted to her throat.

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