STAR FINDER

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Chapter 29: Leo (a Fire Sign) Meets the Astrologer

In slow motion, Zilla slid the chain in place to prevent the door from opening more than three inches. “Just a minute.” She fumbled with the lock, stalling while Tem spritzed the foyer.

He mouthed “Ready” and slipped out of sight inside the hall closet under the stairs. Though the cracks between risers he could see and hear everything that happened in the foyer.

Zilla threw back the bolt and peeked out. “What is it? I was sleeping. Is something wrong? Should I call the police?” A knuckle rubbed her eyes as if she had just been roused.

“I am the police, lady. FBI.” Leo flashed a badge. “Take off the chain and open the damn door.”

“Yes, of course. I’m all thumbs, sorry.” She obeyed and stepped to one side as he entered. Zilla rounded her shoulders, bent over from the waist, and thick-tongued, mumbled in broken English. “What is it?”

“Have you seen the kid, a little girl, that lives here? Last name Randall. Lillian Randall.”

Zilla angled one ear closer.

“Did you hear me, old woman? She was hurt in a fire and I’m trying to help her.”

“The Randalls. Yes, the father and daughter are my tenants. But I haven’t seen either of them tonight. Or is this morning?” Zilla flipped the conversation. “Is the fire spreading? Am I in danger? Should we evacuate the building?”

Leo’s red eyes narrowed. “I need to get in their apartment.”

“Oh, can’t I do that. They could sue me?”

“The girl could be up there dying while you’re yammering down here.” His voice slowed, regained control. “Five minutes. Open the door. If I don’t find the girl, I’m gone.”

“Five minutes? You say she is hurt. I guess that would be okay. I’ll get my keys.”

She fingered them inside her pocket and lied. “They’re in the kitchen. Come in while I find them.” She held the door and as Leo stepped inside the apartment she turned back. “Let me lock up. Can’t be too careful.” A little sleight of hand and she dropped the keys into the potted palm plant next to the door. She knew Tem was watching and would read her signal to get up to the Randall’s and grab anything of value.

She guided her guest down the narrow hall. The interior was a maze. Tem, not a talented carpenter had partitioned off the apartment to make a waiting room and parlor for Zilla’s business. While one room was square and small like a closet another was long and narrow.

Huffing she shuffled into the kitchen. “Here we are, young man.”

She spotted Lilly’s crutch and snatched it up. “That’s better. Forgot where I left this.” She smiled and then said, “Sit, sit. You look terrible. Coffee? There’s some left in the pot. I’ll warm it in the microwave.”

“There’s a kid’s life on the line and you want to drink coffee?” Leo dusted off the black ashes from his priest pants. “Dumb immigrant. Find the key. What’s that smell?”

“You. The fire, right? She played up the role of doddering old woman. “Now where did I put those keys? Terrible if that sweet child was hurt.”

She opened closets and cupboards. She combed through one kitchen drawer after another. “Did I put them in here? No. Maybe there…”

“Listen, lady, if you don’t want me to break down the door that key better be in my hand within the next five seconds.”

Tem burst in. “Who are you? What are you doing in my kitchen?” He had traded his robe for one of Cosmo’s sweatshirts and a pair of work pants.

“He’s the police.” Zilla hooked her arm through Tem’s. “This is my good-for-nothing son. Out all night. Drinking?” She cuffed him on the back of the head.

Leo interrupted, “Knock it off. The key. Now!”

Zilla got flustered, “Sorry officer.” She scowled at Tem. “Do you know where I put the master keys? He needs to look in the Randall’s apartment. The little girl got hurt and might be in there.”

Tem played along. “You’re always forgetting where you put things, Ma.” He opened the silverware drawer, turned around, and showed Leo a key. “Got it. Let’s go.”

Twenty minutes later Tem and Leo were back in the foyer. Zilla was waiting.

Leo warned, “Don’t discuss this with anyone. This is an ongoing investigation.”

“Hey, Ma, it looks like they split. The place is totally trashed.” Tem turned to Leo. “And he owes us a month’s rent.” He unlatched the front door and held it open.

Leo stepped out onto the front stoop. “I’ll be back. Don’t touch anything in that apartment.”

As he disappeared down the steps Zilla called after him. “Next time, I’ll read your fortune. No, charge.”

Ducking back inside the building, Zilla straightened her posture. She no longer needed the crutch to walk. The dimwitted landlady evaporated. The corners of her generous mouth curved up. Her square face beamed.

Tem bolted the door. “If that was a fed, I’m Bruce Lee. So, what’s goin’ on?”

“Let’s talk inside.” She pulled off the shawl.

“Cheesy badge. But he was carrying some heat.”

That sat at the kitchen table. Zilla’s gaze flashed to the pantry. “The juice?”

“I gave her a double dose.”

“Good. She’ll sleep all day. It will be good for her. You must not hurt her, Tem. Leave her to me.” Her eyes crinkled in the corners.

“Why the honored guest treatment? Let’s get rid of her. Maybe she worth somethin’ to the fake fed.”

“No. This girl is special.”

“So you’ve been saying ever since you set up that little hide-n-seek thing where we stuffed Bobby in the ductwork for her to find.”

“Just wait. You’ll see. She’s got the gift. I feel it in my bones. We’ll make a bundle off that girl.” Zilla elbowed Tem. “Hey. What did you get out of their apartment?”

“Nothing. All his computer equipment, gone. Somebody got in there before me.”

“Huh? How? Who?”

“How should I know?”

She rubbed at her chin. “Did you fix her up, like I told ya? Make her comfortable?”

“I didn’t have time.”

Zilla turned on him gritting her teeth. “Stupid! You didn’t cuff her. What if she woke up and tossed around knocked stuff over when he was sitting in my kitchen? Stupid, just like your father.”

“Don’t bust a vessel.” He evaded his mother’s swing and together they lay Lilly’s slack form on an air mattress, threw a thin sheet over her, and placed an ice pack on her ankle.

“You want her tied up, Daj?

“She’s dead to the world. Look at her.” She picked up an arm and let it drop.

“Now can I go back to bed?”

“Yes. Go. I have some thinking to do.” She kissed her son’s cheek. “You’re a good boy.”

“Wait. Daj, Ma, what will we do if that fake cop comes snoopin’ around again?”

Her wide shoulders hunched. “If he shows, we’ll ‘space’ her.”

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