STAR FINDER

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Chapter 35: The Coffin in the Kitchen.

Lilly didn’t know what to make of Zilla’s predictions. Seeing an F in the teacup worried her, but she didn’t have time to ponder.

Tem rushed in. A sweaty V stained the front and back of his white T-shirt. A musty scent of man-perfume and cigarettes filled her nostrils.

Zilla bustled over to her son. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“He’s, he’s…” Tem puffed. “He’s back! That fake cop. He’ll be here in five, ten minutes tops. And he’s bringing friends.”

Zilla’s gaze shifted to Lilly. “Bobby, get me the duct tape.”

Lilly didn’t think she wanted to know the answer, but still she asked, “What do we do with the duct tape?” Her eyes jumped between Zilla and Tem. While the fortuneteller couldn’t make eye contact, her son perked up like a junkyard dog about to be thrown a juicy slab of raw meat.

Lilly knew anything that made Tem happy meant trouble for her. She braced. The tips of her fingers blanched, clamped to the edge of the table. “What’s happening here?”

“Dear, sweet Lilly,” gushed Zilla. “You are not going to like this. But it must be done. We can’t chance you giving away your hiding place. One word, the slightest movement, and they’d find you. We’d all be arrested. The news on the television…all those poor dead people and arson…well you understand. Not that I think you or your father did anything illegal. It’s best in these matters, to stay out of the spotlight. Avoid getting involved with police investigations.”

“Zilla, the people after me aren’t the real police.”

“Shut up, brainiac! She knows. That makes it worse, not better.” He turned to his mother. “Daj? Time’s a wastin’. Enough talk. Are we going to do this or what?” Tem feinted toward her.

Lilly flashed into combat mode, leaping onto her feet. Forgetting about her ankle she fell flat on the floor. Helpless as a turtle on its back she groaned and pounded her small fist in frustration. “This is ridiculous. I’m ridiculous!”

“Haven’t I been telling you that, geek?” Tem smirked.

She thumped the floor four more times.

“Tantrum over? Your Kung Fu powers not working today? Wait right there, I’ll get back to you in a minute.” Enjoying her discomfort Tem chuckled and turned to his mother. “We’ve got five minutes, tops.” His index finger tapped at his watch.

“Sorry, Lilly. Bobby, move! Stop gawking and get the tape.” Zilla turned to her son. “Tem are you sure it’s the same man? I don’t want to put her through this for no good reason.”

Bobby pulled a thick roll of two-inch-wide silver tape out of a drawer.

“Put me through what?” Again, Lilly’s question didn’t matter.

“Like you asked, Daj,” explained Tem, “I sent Bavol and my boys into the park to keep watch. I was up on two, working on that clogged drain when he called to warn us. Bavol described him. I’m sure. It’s the same guy from two nights ago.”

Zilla wrung her hands. “Tem. Go along with me here. I’ve read the signs and they all say she’s special. This could be good for business. These men must not find her. Understand? Please help me. Promise?”

“Yeah, yeah. I got this, Daj.”

Zilla massaged the middle of Tem’s back. “I’m counting on you.”

Zilla eyed Lilly and murmured, “Forgive me.”

The mother and son advanced two steps closer. The rip of tape pulled off the big roll was a hundred decibels louder inside Lilly’s head. “I can be quiet. Tell me what you want me to do. Where to hide?” The whites around her pupils expanded. Her head swiveled to Zilla. “Lock me in the pantry with Bobby like before.”

“It won’t be that easy this time.” Zilla tsked. “Sorry. This is the only way. I’m trying to keep you safe. Tem will tape your hands and feet. There’s a trapdoor under the floor. We’ll put you in there. I’ll be close by.”

Lilly flinched. “Under the floor? That is sick. Please. I’m begging, isn’t there another place I can hide?”

The toe of Tem’s sneaker prodded her hip. He rocked her, waiting for his mother to say the words. “Daj?”

“Wait. Hold on here.” It was Bobby. “Maybe there’s another way. You two can come to some agreement where the kid will cooperate. It’s in her best interest. Didn’t you just ask her to partner up with you?” His hands flashed wide, palms up. “Broker a deal. Make it worth her silence.”

Zilla was thoughtful. “What are you saying, JB? Just put her down there?”

“Dangerous. That’s no good. She’ll go nuts. Yell, struggle. Look at her. She’d never last.” Tem paced in a small circle. “Stumpy, tear off a couple strips of tape and hand them to me.” He yanked her wrists together.

“Stop!” Zilla sat down, pulled a chair closer to Lilly. “One sound, the slightest twitch, and bullets could start flying. This is a serious business.”

“Do you think I don’t know that? He killed my father. I understand better than you.” Lilly looked into the many faces surrounding her. Tem’s eyes shot darts at her, Zilla’s were hopeful, and Bobby’s pleaded. She nodded. “I can do this.”

“Perhaps?” Zilla added, “I’d trust my partner’s word. If we don’t bind you, will you guarantee your silence and are you willingly to work with me, be my apprentice?”

“We’ve never done it that way. This is a bad idea Daj.” Tem fumed. He had been denied his fun.

Had they done this to others? There was only one possible answer. “Yes.”

“Don’t make me regret my decision, Lillian Randall.”

She shook hands with Zilla.

“Tem, get her under.”

Tem snarled, threw back a patch of linoleum.

Lilly stood and hopped over.

“Wait.” Zilla had a small bottle in her palm. “Take one of these. It will calm your nerves.” Her fingers uncurled to reveal a small blue pill.

“No. I can’t think, tolerate any more drugs. I will have a better chance if I’m alert.”

“You’ll suffer without it.” Zilla looked sad. “I am trying to help you, dear. We know what it is like down there.” She cast a mournful gaze at her son.

“No drugs.”

“Very well, Tem take over while I change my clothes.”

“Go on, Daj. I’ll tuck her in and tell her a bedtime story?” Tem and Bobby moved the table and pulled a flap of linoleum up and back.

Lilly swayed as she waited to be interred. Bobby took her elbow as Tem spoke.

“When I was three I took my father’s pocketknife without permission. He beat me. Like usual. But this time after, he showed me what happens to bad boys. He duct-taped me and put me down here.” He stuck his index fingers into a steel ring and yanked up the floorboard. The hatch lifted. Tem exposed a small narrow space between the floor joists. “I could see and hear everything going on up above me. You know the jerk used to eat breakfast and drop crumbs like I could get them. Sicko.” He cleared his throat. “He beat Daj while I watched. I’ll die before I ever go down there again. Let’s see how you do for a few hours.” He showed her his watch. “Five minutes is up. It’s time. Get down.”

Hours? She looked down into the open hole. Years of dirt had fallen through the cracks and collected on the stained pink fiberglass insulation. It was more disgusting than the bathtub.

Tem continued. “First time he ‘spaced,’ me…I was in there for four days and five nights. No water, no food. Just me and the rats.” He commanded. “Lie flat. It’s the only way you’ll fit.”

With Bobby’s assistance she laid down. Tem stood over her.

Bobby leaned close and whispered, “Close your eyes. Let your mind take you someplace else.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze.

A single tear escaped. Lilly blinked up at Bobby.

Tem squatted down. “Back off, stumpy. Here we go.” As if depositing an old rug, Tem rolled her into the coffin-shaped hole. “Not a better place in the world to hide stuff. But don’t get the wrong idea; I’m not doing you a favor. Daj’s your friend, and now your ‘partner.’ Disappoint her and you’re dead meat. One peep and I’ll shoot you myself.”

The lid dropped closed. Above Lilly, the linoleum, chairs, and table scraped as they were put back in place. Lilly watched through the cracks.

Her greasy soup threatened, burning the back of her throat. The tendons at the sides of her neck felt like they would push through the skin. ‘Packed as tight as a sardine in a can’ didn’t begin to describe her feeling. Less than two inches separated her nose from the floor. Her shoulders rubbed the rough wood at her sides.

There was pounding at the apartment door. Someone yelled, “You in there?”

Everyone scurried. Zilla reentered the kitchen dressed in a flowing silk robe of midnight blue. Silver stars sparkled on the cuffs. “Tem, her clothes, that headband? The stuff you brought down from the Randall apartment? Where are they?” Zilla wrapped a headscarf, babushka style, over her neat bun. She pulled a few strands of her dyed black hair free to dangle disorganized around her face. She straightened the tablecloth setting the stage.

“I threw them in the garbage.”

“Good boy. Smart boy. Bobby dumped the soup bowls in the sink.”

Under their feet, Lilly mourned the loss of her headband, her only hope for contacting Skye. She had been counting on it.

Tem shoved Bobby toward the pantry. “Get in there and clean the place up. Keep your mouth shut.” He grabbed the front of Bobby’s shirt yanked him close. “Not a word or you’ll join her.”

Bobby nodded. He was familiar with the drill. He dreaded closed spaces and heights, and Tem knew it.

Tem slammed the pantry door closed. He hurried over to the metal locker, snapped the padlock, and spun its dial.

Zilla twirled full circle. She turned on the television and filled two coffee cups. She set the pot on the table. Her dark eyes inspected the kitchen. “We’re ready.” Just a mother and son watching television after dinner when unexpected guests arrive.”

More pounding on the door and yelling, “FBI! Open up now!”

“Com-ing,” Zilla sang and tucked the crutch under her arm. Softer she said, “We’re set. Quiet now, Lilly.”

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