STAR FINDER

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Chapter 15: Return to the Nest

“Eleven fifteen,” remarked Lilly. “I am off schedule. Past my return time.”

“I understand. We’ll be closing soon, Miss Lillian,” said Mr. Schaffer. “Jynx, your bus will be coming. Put the broom down and go home.”

“Thanks. It’s the last bus or I’d stay and help you clean up.”

“It’s okay. The floors can wait until tomorrow.” Mr. Schaffer insisted. “Get goin’.”

Jynx took off her hat and apron. She folded them and tucked them in a slot beneath the register. She picked up her pocketbook. Draping her black sweater over her arm, Jynx took one step toward the door and then did an about-face and hurried back to Lilly. “Stay safe brain child.” Jynx gave Lilly a quick squeeze and then rushed out.

Did all women show affection so freely?

“Time for you to head home, Miss Lillian.” Mr. Schaffer moved around the shop turning the chairs upside-down onto the tables.

Lilly scraped the last of the fudge sauce and melted ice cream from the bottom of her dish. She licked both sides of her spoon, wiped her mouth with the small napkin, and cleared off her table. She picked up her chair and turned it upside-down just like Mr. Schaffer had. “I’m ready. Enough excitement for one night, maybe even five or six.”

“I would think so,” said Mr. Schaffer guffawing.

“Thank you for the ice cream. It was delicious.” Lilly started for the front door.

“Hold on there.” Mr. Schaffer joined her. He lifted a slat in the blinds and side-by-side they peeked out.

Across the street from Schaffer’s, Tem and at least six members of his gang paced like caged lions. Despite the warm weather, they all wore leather jackets with their gang’s logo. A bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag made the rounds between them.

Tem swigged and leaned back against the park’s iron fence. He spotted Lilly and waved.

Mr. Schaffer let the blind drop.

Lilly back stepped away from the window. “He’s watching me.”

“This is bad news, Miss Lillian.” The manager switched off the lights, inside and out. The dim security nightlights remained. “No reason to make you easy to find.”

“I guess he is not accepting an honorable defeat.”

“You are very naïve, Miss Lillian, if you expected that. Almost as if you have lived in books, not the real world.”

“Yes. I suppose that is true.”

“Tem is a thug. They are all poor losers. Vengeance is a huge motivation to do terrible things.” Mr. Schaffer patted her shoulder. He sized Lilly up. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen. I’m small for my age.” The little white lie sounded so much better than thirteen.

“I don’t like this. Are your parents or friends in the park? Perhaps you should wait here for them to pick you up.”

Lilly shook her head. “My parents did not attend the concert. I came alone.”

“Then call them. Where’s your cell?”

“I…I forgot it.”

“What is your home number?” He pulled out his phone. A finger hovered over the keypad.

“That won’t be necessary. I can handle Tem. He will never catch me. He won’t be able to keep up with my feet or my brain.”

Mr. Schaffer looked doubtful. “Let me call the police. There must be one or two still hanging around the park. They’ll come over and walk you home. You live close by, right?”

“Yes—no!” Her reversal was immediate. Her father had decreed that their location must be kept secret. Lilly softened. “I meant no thank you. I’ll be fine.”

“Yes, I’ve seen you in action. But up against so many?

“Do you have a back door for deliveries?”

“Right. Very well. But you must promise you’ll dial 911 at the first sign of trouble. Here—take my cell.”

“I can’t take this.”

“You’ll bring it back tomorrow. I trust you.”

Lilly tucked the phone into the pouch of her hoodie.

Mr. Schaffer walked her through the storage area to a dented steel door. “This opens directly into the alley and runs behind all the stores for about six blocks.”

“Parallel to the street out front,” clarified Lilly.

“Exactly. I suggest you go right. It’s a straight shot. Two hundred yards to where it intersects with Swan Street.”

“I know it.”

“Good. It will bring you back up onto the main drag,” He pointed. “The park entrance will be right in front of you.”

“Thank you. That is very helpful.”

He removed the heavy bar and slid back the bolt.

Lilly was about to turn the knob when Mr. Schaffer’s hand closed over hers. “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes.”

He gave her shoulder a little squeeze. “Be careful.”

Lilly never hesitated. She opened the door, stepped out, and went right. Three strides and she disappeared, becoming part of the night. Behind her, the steel bolt dropped into place with a bang.

Slipping past Tem was just another game. One she would easily win. Lilly was familiar with the rules of engagement and military strategy, but she was about to learn that in some games there are no rules.

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