STAR FINDER

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Chapter 28: The Unexpected Prisoner

The ceiling light flared on. Housecoat flapping, Zilla barreled out of her apartment prepared to do battle. “What’s going on out here?”

Lilly lay sprawled on the floor facedown.

From the second floor someone called, “I heard a crash.”

Zilla stepped over the moaning girl and looked up the steps at her tenant. “That you Mrs. Bartolucci?”

“Everything alright down there?” A spindly gray-haired woman leaned over the railing.

“Yes, yes. Go back to bed, Mrs. Bartolucci. Sorry to have bothered you.”

“The old don’t sleep, so don’t apologize. I was sucking on a Popsicle and watching that dreamy Clark Gable.” She disappeared and a door closed.

Hands on hips Zilla asked, “Is that you, Lilly Randall?” She fussed about. Picked up the table and returned it to its proper place. With the side of her slipper she pushed the broken glass into a pile by the baseboard. “You’re going to pay for this? I’m telling your father. And I see blood. You cut your foot. My insurance isn’t shelling out for that. It was your fault, not mine.” Her hands wagged as she talked. She went to the closet under the stairs for a dustpan as Lilly pulled herself onto the bottom step. “Speak up girl. I never thought you were one of those wild gaji but I guess I was wrong.”

It wasn’t until Lilly broke down with shoulder-shaking sobs that Zilla stopped scolding and took a closer look. “Saints preserve us.” She made the sign of the cross. “You’re face? It’s cut and bruised. And you stink, like—”

Lilly choked out, “Fire…my dad…men chasing me.” She crumpled against the carved newel post.

Zilla dashed into her apartment and called down the hall. “Tem, get out here! Hurry! I need you.” As Lilly began to slide, Zilla rushed to catch her.

Her son materialized. Yawning, his robe hung open down the front. Tem scratched a strip of hairy belly where T-shirt and boxers didn’t meet. He did a double take. “Where did you get the freak? Is she a gift?”

“None of your wise mouth. Take her into our place. Put her in the living room on the sofa. Hurry. Be careful. She’s hurt.”

“Yeah, yeah.” His moccasins slapped the floor.

“Quick!” Zilla picked up Lilly’s crutch, pushed a small rug over a smear of blood, gave the foyer a cursory nod that everything was in its correct place, and hustled to catch up to Tem. Once they were inside she locked and bolted the apartment door.

“Go easy,” she scolded. “You bumped her head on the door jam. Lay her down gently.” It was a turquoise sectional covered in plastic. Two leather recliners sat in front of a large flat screen. Wires ran from it to an Xbox and controllers. A small table next to each chair held food-crusted plates and half empty glasses of soda. The small room overflowed with the old—Zilla’s stuff—and the new—Tem’s tech gadgets and laptop. Zilla clicked on a floor lamp.

Tem dumped his burden and huffed. “So what’s going on?” He jammed his pinky finger into his ear and wiggled it as if removing wax.

“Go into the shop. No lights. Turn off my sign and watch out the front windows. See if anyone followed her. Quick!”

“But I’m tired. And wait until I tell you what she—”

“Go! Do it.” Zilla smacked Tem on the back of the head.

He cursed under his breath and shambled off.

Zilla got busy. She bathed Lilly’s face with cold water and revived her.

At first Lilly cringed and Zilla held her tight to stop the shakes. “There…there…now. Zilla’s got you. It’s okay.” She crushed the trembling child to her chest until the crying slowed then she drew back and held Lilly at arm’s length. “Now. Tell me. Why do you smell like smoke? Were you at that big warehouse fire? It was on the news. Are you in trouble with the police?” That was the last thing Zilla needed.

“Yes! No! Please, no police.”

“Calm down, I’m not calling anyone. Your foot, I see a cast. An EMT treated you?” When Lilly nodded, Zilla asked, “Should I take you to the hospital?”

“No.” Lilly whimpered. “No one can know I am here. Promise, please? Please!”

“Okay. I won’t, but where is your father? I should talk to him.”

Lilly burrowed into the stout woman to get closer.

Cosmo and his sharp questioning eyes had intimidated Zilla. Nonetheless for months now she had watched the girl and tested her in small ways. She had read the signs. The stars were never wrong. She was sure she had the gift but dared not make a move because of the father. He kept the child sealed away inside their apartment and when they went out he hovered like a hawk with its chick. But if he was delayed or out of the picture she might be able to make a move. She considered the dangerous venture from all angles. Tem hated Lilly. Her nephew Bavol had told her of her son’s humiliation at Schaffer’s. If she wanted to keep the girl she would have to convince Tem it would be profitable. Even then she’d have to keep him on a short leash. Her mind zinged with the cosmic possibilities, but first the father. She had to be sure he was out of the way. It all hinged on him.

“I keep my promises. I will help, but you must tell me the truth.” Zilla took Lilly’s hands in hers. “Now, where is your father?”

Her small chin quivered. “A man shot him.” She blurted out, “He is dead.” She hid behind her hands. “Please…I don’t want to talk about it.”

Zilla’s foot tapped. She cajoled, “What else? Who are these men chasing you?”

“My father worked for them. They…they think I know things about my father’s…computer business.”.

Lilly sniffled and Zilla dabbed at her nose with tissues. “Is that all of it?”

“They work at a place called Nautilus? I can’t stay here.” Lilly pushed Zilla away. “It’s too dangerous. I don’t want you to get in trouble, hurt. I should leave. I’ll find another place. Can you help me up to my apartment? I will pack up and leave.”

“Slow down. Sit back. Do these people know where you live?”

“Yes.”

“Let me think.” One of Zilla’s black fingernails, a silver star painted in the center, tapped her front teeth.

“You’ll stay here. That way if they come and get into your apartment they won’t find you. And they can’t search every apartment. That would draw attention and the police. So, you’ll be safe with me.”

“Safe

“Believe me. I won’t let them take you.” Her powerful large hands gripped Lilly’s shoulders.

Tem walked in from the front room. “How long do I have to keep watch? I’m tried.”

“Did you see anyone?”

He shook his head. “I’m going back to bed.”

Zilla’s thick eyebrows met in the middle. At this hour a heavy braid had replaced her tight bun. A white streak fanned out from a widow’s peak over the dyed black. “No, Tem. First we take care of Lilly. I think some Tylenol will help. Okay, dear?”

“And some Gatorade, please…if you have it. To replenish my lost electrolytes.”

“Let me drown the brainiac.” Tem stepped toward her. “I’m not your butler.”

“That’s enough, Tem!” Zilla winked at her son, but her voice remained stern. “She wants juice, she gets juice. The pink juice with lots of ice. Sorry dear, no Gatorade. Now Tem. Don’t forget the pills. The ones on the top shelf.”

When the juice arrived Lilly threw the pills in her mouth and drained the glass. “That tasted good.”

A heavy pounding in the foyer and all eyes popped. The three conspirators looked at each other. Zilla rose.

“No. No! Don’t open it,” cried Lilly. She latched onto Zilla’s hand trying to pull her back down onto the sofa. “Don’t go out there.”

“Dear, it is the outside, street-facing door. One of my tenants might have forgotten their key.” Zilla petted Lilly.

“No!”

A finger lifted Lilly’s face up to meet her gaze. “It will be fine. We’ll hide you. Whatever happens, don’t fight it. Trust me.”

Zilla gave short quick commands. “Tem, take her to the pantry!” She pointed. “If it’s the police I’ll stall. If they get inside the apartment we can’t risk them finding her. Get the air mattress for her.”

Lilly’s heart hammered against her ribs. “But I…”

Zilla ignored her. “Get a move on! Then join me in the foyer and bring your revolver.

“I ain’t no nurse. Tell me what’s happening here.”

“No time!” Zilla slapped Tem on the cheek leaving a red handprint. “Do what I say!” She bent down and wrapped an arm around Lilly’s shoulder. “It will be okay.”

Lilly swayed. “What did you give me?”

Tem’s fingers dug into Lilly’s ribs and she squirmed. “Ouch.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and tugged her slack body down the hall.

The banging grew louder.

Zilla yelled after her son. “She’ll be asleep soon.” She pulled a fringed coverlet off the back of a chair and wrapped it around her shoulders like a shawl. It hung to the floor. The pantry door opened and closed. She confirmed that Tem had the padlock in place. Dodging into the bathroom she came out with a can of air freshener and shoved it into Tem’s hand.

“Get rid of any traces of her and for god’s sake spray that around. The place smells like a barbeque.”

The banging got louder. Zilla rushed out of the apartment in the wake of a steam of lilac scent.

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