STAR FINDER

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Chapter 31: Prisoner or Guest?

Hoisting the broom like a sword, Lilly froze. She squinted, shocked by the sudden blast of light. Overhead a large ceiling fan whirled. Blood pinked her teeth and gums. Bedraggled, sprawled flat on her back with Bobby on top of her, they wrangled like a divorced couple.

“Get off me!” She pushed and he yelled, “Let go of me!”

Zilla roared, “Bobby! What did you do?”

A smug Tem watched amused. Hands on hips he hovered over the pair. “Daj, relax. It’s just Bobby. He’s not equipped for…”

“Shut up, Tem.” Zilla slung the dishtowel over one shoulder and hurried to Lilly’s side. “Bless me Saint Zefirino! Tem, help her.”

“Sure.” Tem yanked the broom out of Lilly’s hands and propped it against the wall inside the pantry. “I’ll take that and this.” Smirking, he reached down snatched Bobby up off Lilly’s chest by the waist of his pants and with a grunt tossed him aside. “Didn’t know you had it in you…but with the geek? Hold on. The geek and the freak…that works.” He chortled at his own joke.

“Tem, be nice.” Zilla bent over Lilly. “Did he hurt you?” Her brow folded into one straight line as she glared at Bobby.

“I-I-I didn’t know anyone else was in the pantry.” Lilly’s eyes drifted from Zilla to her mugger. Was he the gypsy’s youngest son? The same one she had used her finding skills to rescue? Bobby? Yes, that was his name. She looked harder.

“Knock it off, Tem. She’s a baby,” said Bobby as he brushed off and retied the rope holding up his oversized jeans. The frayed tail of an ugly blue-striped T-shirt hung below his knees—clearly hand-me-downs in Tem’s hefty size. Bobby was about Lilly’s height, somewhere around four ten. His sandy colored hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. A few loose strands fell in curls onto his deep forehead. He had the meaty chest and arms of a body builder. A layer of reddish blond peach-fuzz-coated his dimpled chin. Lilly watched as he inspected the finger she had bitten.

“The baby bites.” Tem added, “Good for you, girl.”

“She took a chunk,” offered Bobby. “You had your shots kid? I don’t want to catch rabies.”

“Y-yes. Wait. What shots?” She was a girl, not a wild animal.

“Full of surprises aren’t you, brainiac?” Got some chemistry goin’ under all that ugliness and that mutilated face.” Tem’s lips puckered, smooched a kiss in Lilly’s direction. “You learn that stuff in the dictionary?” His hips swiveled.

Lilly twisted away from Tem’s air kiss.

“The brainiac can’t resist putting in her two cents. Gotta have all the answers.”

“Stop playing, Tem. Get her up.” Zilla shooed him with her towel.

“I’m not touchin’ her! She stinks!”

Bobby stepped forward. “Grab hold, kid.” His hand reached out to Lilly.

She hesitated.

“Or you could lie there and be stumped on,” added Tem. “Your choice.”

Bobby’s was the better offer and she accepted. Her soft hand slid into his calloused warm grasp. He scooped her up, in one easy motion. Cradled in his arms she flushed.

Bobby asked, “Where do you want her, Zilla?”

“Put her in the bathroom. She needs a shower. I’ll be right there, Lilly.”

It was steps from the kitchen. Bobby sat her on the toilet before returning to the kitchen. Through the open door, opposite her, a small TV blared.

A banner at the bottom of the screen flashed alerts and pictures of the warehouse fire. The reporter announced, “Eighteen confirmed dead…Washington Hospital Center reported twenty-two admissions…twelve in critical condition…arson suspected.”

Bobby caught Lilly’s pained expression and asked, “Is that your story?”

“No talking,” warned Tem. “Get out of there and back to work, JB.”

Bobby crossed to the TV, switched it off, and returned to his duties.

Lilly gestured, ‘thank you.’ Her gaze drifted over to Zilla’s kitchen. One word came to mind: cheap. The place was a mishmash of salvaged cabinets, a home decorator’s worst nightmares. Above the white enameled electric stove, dust balls dangled from a grease-coated spice rack. Orange and green fruity curtains framed the double window over the sink and looked out into a sad grassless fenced backyard. A creamy yellow metal cabinet hung above and to the left of the sink, while a faded blue wood grain one hung on the right. The right side of a double stainless steel sink was full of dishes soaking. The left half held a drying rack stacked high. White and gold-flecked Formica on either side of the sink was branded with black circles from hot pans. Below the counter were open shelves stacked with bowls and pots.

And then there was the tall beige school locker with a combination lock that hung between the pantry and bathroom doors. Lilly wondered what was so important that it required a padlock. Valuables?

“Zilla…” Lilly called.

“Daj!” yelled Tem. “The stove. Something is bubbling over!”

Zilla poured a handful of salt into her stockpot and stirred. “Coming, Lilly.” Turning her brew to simmer she replaced the lid and rushed into the bathroom.

“Daj, will you be okay in there alone with her?”

“Yes. Of course. What is she going to do? Crawl down the drain? Silly.”

Lilly nodded that she would comply.

“I’ve got a business meeting. Shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes.”

“Go! Shoo!” Zilla pushed Tem out of the way and closed the bathroom door. Her black and pink moo-moo caught and she yanked it free.

“You’re filthy. And you smell like a landfill. A shower, then something to eat.” Zilla tugged at Lilly’s clothes. “Strip.”

“Wait. What are you doing?” She stiffened her chin, held it tight to her chest, and clutched her shirt, resisting Zilla.

The bathroom—a pink and white holdover from the 1950s—was tiny. When the plump Zilla bent over to remove Lilly’s lone sneaker, her ample backside pressed against the door. The sink was opposite the toilet and the cast iron tub was on the outside wall. All three were within easy reach of each other and it made it hard for Zilla to maneuver. For Lilly, there was no escape.

As much as she relished washing away some of the grime, after a quick scan of the condition of the tub she wasn’t sure if a shower would be an improvement. The tub’s plastic shower curtain and walls were crawling with mildew. Black spores sprouted over every surface like freckles on a five-year-old. Even the window inside the tub area was caked with the slick slime.

Zilla yanked on the sleeve of Lilly’s shirt, “Go on. Take it all off. I haven’t got all day.”

“In front of you?”

“Yes. We are both women. There’s no need to be shy.” She patted a heap of clothes piled on top of the radiator. “Earlier, I had Tem bring some of your things down from your apartment. There wasn’t much left, just some bottles of vitamins and clothes.”

Lilly wondered what else from her apartment Tem had helped himself to. Then her mind painted a picture of Tem handling her underwear and the creeps replaced anger.

“Fresh clothes,” urged Zilla holding them up to tempt Lilly.

A shirt, pants that didn’t smell and remind her of the fire overrode her embarrassment. Lilly pulled her cami and hoodie off over her head. Zilla’s gentle fingers worked to remove her air cast and bandages. Then she peeled off the jeans and underwear as Lilly balanced on one foot and hung onto the sink.

Zilla hummed what Lilly guessed was a gypsy melody. The mellow tones were pleasant.

“I hope these aren’t your favorite.” Zilla balled up the dirty clothes, opened the door, and threw them out onto the kitchen floor. She yelled through the cracked door, “Stumpy, dump those in the trash before they stink up the house.”

Darn! Her lock picks had been in her jeans. Naked and exposed Lilly hid behind the open door with one arm crossed over her chest, and the other over her lower half. She glanced at the girl in the medicine cabinet mirror. Dark pits circled her eyes. The cut above her brow was almost an inch long. Could that battered creature be me?

Zilla slammed the door, threw a thin towel at Lilly, and pulled her back onto the toilet. “Cover yourself while I have a look.”

Lilly noticed much of the swelling around her ankle had resolved. Still it was blue-purple and tender.

“The ice has done its job,” said Zilla. “We’ll ice it down again tonight. The bruising is another matter. Does this hurt?” Zilla pressed on the ankle.

“Yes,” Lilly bit her bottom lip.

Zilla tapped Lilly’s chin. “Stop that. Or the cut on your chin won’t heal.”

Lilly hung her head and submitted.

Zilla probed the bones up to her knee. “Nothing broken. Give that ankle a week or two in the air cast and you’ll be right as rain. We’ll keep it elevated when you are sitting.” Slow and easy she peeled back the gauze pads on the bottom of Lilly’s foot. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.” Tossing the soiled dressing in the trash, Zilla moved closer. Her eyes, hard and sharp as an eagle’s, zeroed in. Her thumbs worked in tandem, brushing over each cut. She flattened the skin. “No splinters. Clean as a whistle.” Baffled and impressed, she looked at Lilly. “You walked on glass?”

Lilly shrugged.

“You must have been very frightened to endure this. So if you were on the run, why did you stop and who cleaned you up? Put on the bandage, air cast, and gave you a crutch?”

Fearing Zilla’s line of questions had a purpose. She remained cautious and repeated last night’s answer.

“Someone at the fire. There were many EMTs. I don’t really remember…it looked like this when I came too.” So far every person who came in contact with her had suffered. Paranoia meant survival.

Zilla stared at her for a moment and said, “Keep your little secrets if you must. But you do realize the same man who came here last night is interviewing the emergency workers today.”

“Can I take my shower now?”

“Very well. The sole of your foot has a healthy crust. Wait. What do we have here? It looks like something took a bite out of your big toe.”

“A rat.” Had it saved her life? That event was a smoky oxygen-deprived illusion in her mind.

“Filthy vermin. Do you think it had rabies?”

“It was on fire. It didn’t know what it was doing.”

“After you wash, dry your foot and we’ll leave it open to the air. Put this cream on the bite. You’ll still need a clean sock. There’s a pair of sneakers in your room.”

“You mean the pantry?”

Zilla reached into the tub. “Let me get the water going for you.” She tested the stream onher hand. “Good enough. Get in there.” She held the curtain aside and Lilly stepped in. “My you are a skinny one. Zilla will fix you up. Put some meat on those bones.” She pinched Lilly’s protruding collarbone.

“Whoops!” Holding on to the windowsill for support, Lilly inched under the skimpy stream. The faucet was turned all the way over to hot, but at best the water was lukewarm. She looked down. Rings caked with gray grit circled the inside of the tub. Her toes curled as if to avoid landmines.

“Soap.” Zilla’s hand shot in from behind the curtain and wagged.

Lilly took it and asked, “Shampoo?”

“Use the soap.”

Lilly wet the small brown bar and worked it in her hands. Hairs, short curly and dark speckled its cracked surface. Whose body had the soap last rubbed over? She shuddered. Better not to think about that. She dipped her head under the stream and lathered up. Through the strings of her cropped hair, she watched the remnants of smoke and blood drip. Black and red twirled at the bottom of the tub merging with the floating hair and scum.

The silky bubbles glided over her skin. She sighed.

From her perch on the toilet, Zilla asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Lilly stared at the drain sucking away the filth and grime. If soap had magic powers and could wash away yesterday all her troubles would go down the drain. It was a fanciful thought since her stains were on the inside and resistant to soap.

After a few minutes of peace, she realized the drain emptied slower than the inflow of water. Three inches of murk had collected in the bottom of the tub. Pollution circled her ankles.

“Zilla, the drain is plugged.”

Rolling up her sleeve, Zilla’s naked arm appeared from behind the curtain. She dipped a hand into the cloudy waters and came out with a chunk of hair. The tub emptied and she turned off the water. “That’s enough. I pay the water bill.” She yanked back the shower curtain.

Lilly flinched. Naked, she couldn’t look Zilla in the eye. Her dripping hair fell like a hood over her face. “I think I still have soap in my hair.”

“Let me see.” Zilla smelled her hair. Rubbed sections between her fingers. “It squeaks. You got most of it out.” She pulled a faded green towel off the rack and tossed it at her. “Wrap that around you and I’ll help you out. Then I’ve got to check my soup. You dry off and get dressed.”

“Yes, Zilla.” Anything for some privacy.

“Can you manage the air cast by yourself? Well, of course, you can. You are very smart.”

Again she nodded and Zilla walked out leaving the door ajar. Lilly shoved it closed with her big toe.

Zilla’s head popped back in. “Don’t lock this door!”

“Yes, Zilla.” It was becoming her mantra. She dressed in clean underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt. The shower, while well below her usual hygienic standards, did renew her. Her mind brightened and began to churn. She needed to retrieve the money hidden upstairs, along with her lucky headband, get out of here, reconnect with Skye, and get out of D. C..

Lilly had just put on clean socks and reapplied the air cast when Zilla called out.

“Do you need help walking? Or can you make it to the table on your own?”

Hair matted, she opened the door. “I can make it. Do you have any ibuprofen or acetaminophen?”

“What?”

“Pills for pain.”

“In the medicine cabinet. Help yourself. I put your right shoe next to your chair.”

Rummaging through the meds Lilly found the pills, a tube of generic toothpaste, a few of Zilla’s cosmetics, and a ton of Tem’s hair products.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

Lilly smeared toothpaste on a finger and brushed her teeth. She bubbled, “Where are the paper cups?”

Tem was back. “Open your trap and stick your frankenskank face under the faucet.” To Bobby, he said, “If we’re lucky she’ll drown herself.”

Lilly slurped and rinsed. Then she popped four generic ibuprofen into her mouth and washed them down. She poured half the remaining pills into her pocket for later.

As she turned to leave she saw a basket on the back of the toilet. In it were several of Zilla’s long hairpins, the kind she used to secure her bun. Lilly took a handful and shoved them deep into her jeans pocket to replace the pick set that was now in the garbage.

She hopped out into the kitchen finger-combing her damp hair. “Do you have a hairbrush?”

“You don’t need to pretty yourself,” said Zilla. “Come to the table. Dinner’s almost ready.”

Lilly sat down at the table and pushed her uninjured right foot into her shoe.

Bobby passed through the kitchen on his way to the porch with a mop and sloshing bucket. He paused, gave her a look. “You look better.” A finger scraped at the corners of his mouth. “You’ve still got some white stuff, toothpaste.”

Lilly rubbed her face on her sleeve.

“You don’t talk to her. How many times do I have to tell you, JB?” Tem shoved Bobby. “Empty the bucket and those marble tiles in the foyer better be clean.”

“Thank you for the shower, Zilla.”

“Zilla knowns best, dear.”

“Why do you and Tem treat him that way and call him names?” She pointed outside where Bobby was dumping his bucket.

Tem butted in. “Because that’s what he is. A stump. Just Bobby, JB, a nothing.”

Bobby returned. “Time to eat?”

Tem took Bobby by the collar and directed him into the pantry. “Not yet. First get over here. Grab hold of this.’ He patted the shelves. “Pick up this section and put it back where it belongs. Clean up all the cans that fell on the floor.”

Bobby is very strong. Lilly heard the scrape of the shelves. Tem was a foreman, not a laborer. He leaned on the doorjamb—half in the pantry and half in the kitchen. He watched her and supervised Bobby.

“I thought you knew everything, brainiac.” Tem folded his arms. “He’s a midget. You know. What’s the politically correct term?” He snapped his fingers thinking.

Lilly answered, “A little person. I am familiar with the term. But I meant the names are so degrading. He’s your brother and her child.”

Out of sight in the pantry came a mocking, “Yeah, Ma.”

“No way in hell is that suck-face, my brother.” Tem stood taller.

“Don’t let it bother you, dear.” From her station at the stove, Zilla explained, “Stumpy is a…fringe member of the household. He helps Tem.”

“But he’s your son. You treat him like a slave.” Her eyes drifted to Tem.

Zilla cleared her throat, “Well, Bobby is not really mine. We, sort of, adopted him. He was homeless. We gave him a place to sleep and food. In return, he helps Tem with the building maintenance. And he makes extra on tips from my clients. He helped me in my shop. You’ll be roommates.”

“What? No!”

“Hey, kid,” Bobby’s head popped out of the pantry. “It was my room before you barged in. I donated my air mattress. Don’t knock it. That’s all you’re getting.”

“Sorry. You can have it back.”

“Not after you peed on it.”

“I didn’t urinate on it. It was wet because the ice packs melted. I can sleep in the living room.”

“Stop! Both of you. And no, Lilly. You are not sleeping on my sofa,” snapped Zilla. “What if someone dropped by and saw you? Tenants pop in and out with their complaints all day. I have clients…” She cocked her head close to Lilly’s ear. “And then there’s that man from last night. He said he’d be back. We must be careful.” She wiggled her brows. Then louder, “Bobby will behave.”

Bobby presented his finger with Lilly’s tooth marks. “As long as she doesn’t attack me again, we can work something out.”

“I didn’t—”

Tem smacked Bobby on the side of the head. “Shut up.”

“Enough!” Zilla’s fist slammed down on the counter jarring the dishes. “The sleeping arrangements have been settled. I have the blood pressure. Your squabbling upsets me.” She dabbed her cheeks with the dishtowel. “Tem?” His mother warned. “Leave them alone.”

“Alone? You two want to be alone, stumpy?” Tem pulled a chocolate bar from his shirt pocket, unwrapped it, and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth.

“I’m through in here. Can I eat now?”

“Yeah. Sit down.” Tem granted permission.

“Don’t sweat it kid. Nothing happened last night. I listened to you babble.” He turned to Tem. “She kept me awake. ‘Daddy…Chichi.’ She whined all night. Talking to someone named Skye. ‘Skye I can’t find you,’” Bobby mimicked Lilly. The fingers of one hand clamped together and formed a duck’s bill. They opened and closed as he sat down next to Lilly. “On and on. She never shuts up.”

At the stove, Zilla chimed in. “It’s so nice to have another woman in the house.” She scooped out something solid and banged the spoon on the side of the bowl until it released and dropped. It landed with a heavy sloppy thud.

Zilla slid onto a chair a crossed the table. “You comfortable dear? Here you need a pillow.” She reached over and took the worn cushion from the back of her own chair and put it under Lilly’s propped foot.”

“Thank you, Zilla. Your solicitations are appreciated.”

“Solicit…whats?” mumbled Tem. “Daj, you’re zipping around here like a damn bumblebee caring for a queen. Chill. She’s not a guest.”

“Don’t be jealous, son.”

“Um, is that for me?” Lilly’s eyes dilated at the gray glob in the bowl. It resembled mortar and was not part of any food group she recognized. “What is it?”

“Oatmeal. Here, Bobby.” She nudged it and the spoon in front of him.

He glanced into his bowl of congealed lumps. “This is…what…”

“You want to eat or not JB? No sugar. You’ll eat it plain,” ordered Tem. “We have another mouth to feed now so you’re lucky to have this.”

“He can have my dinner,” offered Lilly fearing her portion would be just as unappetizing.

“He has plenty, dear.” Zilla folded a paper napkin and placed it in front of Lilly. “Bobby is always joking. He was in the circus, a clown, you know. Oatmeal is his favorite.”

“Yeah, right,” mumbled Bobby. Mocking, he used two hands to stir when Zilla looked away.

“Zilla’s got something special for you, dear.”

“Why does he get different food?” Part of Lilly felt sorry for Bobby and part of her thought she was less likely to be drugged if she only consumed the same food as Zilla and Tem. Special food sounded risky.

The teakettle whistled and Zilla poured boiling water into a fancy teacup. From a metal tin, she extracted several pinches of leaves and twigs and sprinkled them into the hot water. Carrying the cup and saucer with two hands she presented it to Lilly. “Here dear, a nice cup of tea to calm the nerves.”

Zilla’s cajoling had the opposite impact on Lilly.

“These are astrological and planetary symbols.” Zilla pointed at the gold embossed characters circling the inner and outer rim of the cup. “Let it steep a bit, dear.”

Lilly sniffed. “What kind of tea is this? I don’t think I have seen a purple blend before.”

Drab in my people’s language, herbs in yours. It’s my own special blend. A little cherry bark, some garlic, and mandrake. Sip.” She hustled back to the stove.

“Mandrake?”

“The dominant planetoid in the night sky this month is Saturn. The fruit of the mandrake is dedicated to Saturn. I assure you it is edible and medicinal. So,” her spoon came out of the pot and gestured as she spoke, “it will speed your recovery. It’s all in the stars dear.”

Tem murmured in Lilly’s ear. “My Daj is a chovihani,” he wiggled his fingers as if casting a spell, “a gypsy witch.” Tem chanted something in a language Lilly didn’t recognize, and then he darted at her and yelled. “Boo!”

She jolted.

Rushing forward, Zilla wheeled on her son and smacked him on the back of the head with her wooden spoon. “Stop that taunting thing you do. Sit down.” She threw the spoon in the sink.

How many times had she seen Zilla either physically or verbally abuse Tem? No wonder he exploded without provocation. Lilly added a smidgen of compassion to Tem’s psychological dossier. She was building one for each of the three most dysfunctional people she had ever met. Tem, Zilla, and Bobby.

“Drink, drink. Go on,” encouraged Zilla.

“Nothing to make me sleep?”

Zilla leaned over, picked up the cup, and took a sip to prove her point. “See. It will be good for you.” She held the steaming brew to Lilly’s lips. “Your turn.”

“Promise. No drugs?”

Zilla crossed her heart and Lilly took the cup and drank.

“Never again. I promise. Last night…you needed your sleep. When you arrived you were hysterical. And that man…” Zilla shivered. “Well we couldn’t take a chance on you crying and him finding you.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Let’s see… one night and all day. It’s seven, dinnertime. We thought that horrible man would come back but so far he hasn’t showed.”

“Why was he in there with me?” Her eyes shifted to Bobby but Zilla answered.

“I asked him to keep an eye on you and let us know when you were awake.”

“Oh.” She picked up her tea and took the smallest sip. “Yummy.”

“There now, you’ll eat, drink, and after I’ll read the leaves.” Satisfied Zilla went to the cabinet and removed three soup bowls.

“Yummy? Who says yummy?” Bobby chortled and glanced at Lilly.

“I told you not to talk to her,” said Tem joining the family at the table. He cuffed Bobby on the back of the head. Monkey see, monkey do.

Like mother, like son.

“And don’t ever touch her again. Hurry and eat.” Zilla scowled. “That oatmeal meets the garbage in two minutes.”

Lilly noticed Zilla was a formidable leading lady in her own drama. Her moods ranged over every possible emotion. Were they also influenced by the stars?

Zilla picked up a ladle from the stack of dishes in the sink, dipped into a pot, and filled three bowls. Next to one bowl was a thick slice of grainy bread slathered with butter. Zilla walked over and presented Lilly with her culinary gift. “Let’s eat.”

All four gathered around the table.

Hers did not include bread. Head over the steaming bowl, she inhaled. “It smells like chicken. What are those floating things?”

“Dumplings made from chicken fat.”

“You eat meat, animal fats? I am not allowed.”

“Please, dear.” Zilla’s shoulders drooped as if a hundred pounds had been piled on. Her fingers dug into her neck muscles.

Sitting next to Lilly, Tem covered her hand with his and crunched her small fingers together. “My mother made you soup. No complaints. Eat it.”

Bobby lurched toward Lilly. “Tem. No.”

“Son,” Zilla stroked his cheek. “See how he cares for me.” She caressed his face, but her soft eyes apologized to Lilly. “He was just playing dear. He’s such a strong boy.” She tsked. “Now we eat.”

Tem scowled at Lilly and flecked Bobby on the ear. “Don’t ever tell me ‘no’ again, stumpy.”

“Here we are having a family dinner. Isn’t this nice?” Zilla’s bushy black brows arched.

Nice? Zilla was deluded. Lilly’s spoon hovered above her bowl. She flexed her tender fingers. Tem’s brief display of intimidation made it clear that declining Zilla’s cooking wasn’t an option and yet… all those floating globs?

“Oh for goodness sake. First the tea now the soup. See,” Zilla dipped her spoon into Lilly’s bowl and sampled. Soup splashed on the table.

Lilly complied and took a taste. There was an important lesson here. Until she could get away she must fit in, not make waves.

“Good girl. The fat will thicken your blood,” said Zilla. “Give you the strength.”

Thick blood didn’t sound very healthy to Lilly. “Thank you for the soup, Zilla.” As dainty as the queen taking high tea, Lilly sipped the broth off her spoon. A trace of dried food stuck to the back of her spoon. Holding it below the table she picked it off and scooped up another bite. Grease, islands of yellow chicken fat sailed the surface. It was salty.

“Did you hear that boys? Thank you.” Zilla pointed at Bobby and Tem with her soupspoon. “Now that’s manners. Good breeding.”

“This is tasty. You were correct about the soup, Zilla.” It looked disgusting, but it was delicious. “From a medical standpoint fat is an excellent source of energy. The salt is just what my body craves to correct my electrolyte imbalance.” After another sampling, hunger took control. She emptied her bowl like a soup-eating vacuum.

Zilla smiled pleased.

On her right Bobby was battling with his meal. He rolled a great lump around inside his mouth. The cords on his neck stood out as he strained to swallow.

Lilly puzzled over Bobby’s relationship with Zilla. Why did he stay and let them mistreat him? Since they were bunking together—something she was still trying to wrap her head around—she’d ask him later.

Tem slurped down his third helping. The rich broth dripped off his chin. “Daj, fix me a roast beef sandwich. Plenty of horseradish.”

“Growing boys…” She crossed to the counter and pulled out the bread and fixings.

Tem’s appetite and multiple courses left no doubt in Lilly’s mind how he had gotten fat. Food equaled love in Zilla’s kitchen when it came to Tem. Bobby didn’t get much of either. What should she expect?

She asked, “Zilla may I please have a slice of bread?”

“Not today, dear. I think you should take it slow. And I am not a rich person. With so many mouths to feed…” she gestured at Lilly and Bobby, “well, I will figure out something. I have too generous a heart.” Zilla’s hand went to her chest. She grimaced and sighed.

Bobby rolled his eyes and Lilly wondered what Zilla was expecting of her, financially.

“Dinner’s over.” Zilla clapped her hands. “Bobby, clear the table. Bring my things from the salon.”

Tem went to the locker and opened the combination lock. On the back of the door was a board with small hooks with the spare keys labeled for each apartment. But it was inside the locker that was most interesting.

Lilly lowered her lids and took sly glances. Money, guns, three laptops, watches, and jewelry—she spotted Mrs. Bartolucci’s lost necklace hanging on a hook. She recognized it from the flier posted on the board in the foyer just outside Zilla’s door. Stacked high on each shelf were stolen goods. So this was Tem’s business. Her sanctuary was headquarters for thieves.

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