STAR FINDER

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Chapter 36: What You Can’t See Won’t Hurt You?

Swaddled in insulation like a mummy, Lilly was helpless and terrified down to the marrow of her bones. One second after the trapdoor banged shut she wished she had swallowed the darn blue pill. Yes, this time, Zilla had been telling the truth when she said she wanted to help. Anything would have been better than lying on her back with the floor and its dirt raining down in her face while she developed a phobia to suffocation. If she’d been immobilized with duct tape and put down here she would have gone insane.

Inside the cramped space, she sucked air in and out through her nose until her own breaths drummed in her ears. Zilla said they were partners. What did that mean? Did she want to know? Whatever it was she would have to handle it.

That is unless Nautilus found her in the next few minutes. Then, game over.

She saw a section of the ceiling, the spinning fan, and the ragged cuffs of Tem’s low-riding jeans between the cracks in the flooring. She could see and hear anything happening in the kitchen directly above her, but her vision to the sides was limited.

Eew. This place smelled bad and was full of hairy spiders. Don’t panic.

Her insertion point under the kitchen and the increase in humidity lead her to the logical assumption that she was suspended from the basement ceiling in an area separate from the laundry. But facing straight up in her fixed position might create room for error.

The fiberglass prickled her skin. It was a bed on an anthill. She itched and the temperature, at least, five degrees hotter than in the kitchen, made it worse. The boiler clicked on. No wonder she was overheated, Tem had dumped her near the water heater and it fired up every time someone in the building turned on the faucet.

Within seconds, her skin was slick with sweat. She needed to scratch her nose. That was impossible. Click, click, whoosh went the boiler. The people in this building use too much hot water.

There was more pounding. She settled in and didn’t fight her prison. She chose to take Bobby’s advice, lie still, and conserve her strength.

She had tracked Zilla’s shuffling gait to the front door, heard her greet Leo. “Oh, it’s that handsome young man from the CIA. Did you come back for a reading?”

“No, I’m not here for your psychic shit,” said Leo. “This is official FBI business.”

Tem chimed in. “We know our rights. Let’s see your warrant.”

The rumble of more feet entering—Lilly estimated four men had accompanied Leo. After her last run-in with Nautilus, she assumed they were all armed. Zilla was in grave danger.

She heard the rustle of paper.

“Satisfied? Have it framed. Let’s get on with this. We need to get into Randall’s apartment. We are confiscating the contents and we’ll be searching the building and interviewing the residents.”

“That apartment came furnished,” said Zilla. “I decorated it myself.”

“Yeah,” chimed Tem.

“I’ll decide what you can keep. Get the keys. All of them.”

“Tem, do what the man says. Go with them and inform the other tenants,” said Zilla.

“Top to bottom. Call me if you find anything.” Orders received, Leo’s men clomped out of the kitchen. “Okay, let’s go, Madame Zilla. I believe the first floor is all yours.”

Lilly’s heart quickened. Top to bottom—Leo’s instructions repeated in her head. Would they hear her breathing and discover her hiding overhead when they searched the basement?

The kitchen floor creaked forecasting Leo and Zilla’s approach. Zilla played the poor old lady dragging her feet game again and used the crutch. Her slow lazy thumping made it easy to pinpoint her location. Leo was a plodder and his shoes squeaked. They must be new. He stopped next to the kitchen table, right above her.

“I’ll start in here,” said Leo.

Lilly held her breath as sweat clung to her eyelashes. Blinking, it rolled down the sides of her face and pooled in her ears. Leo’s shoes were black and as she expected the soles were unblemished, showing little use.

Silk swished and sequins sparkled as Zilla passed. Lilly noticed the gypsy’s moccasins matched her floor-length gown. When she sat down at the table it blocked portions of Lilly’s view.

Being ‘spaced’ must have been terrifying for a child. Lilly further understood why Tem was Tem. She didn’t like him, but she didn’t hate him quite as much.

Zilla shoved a chair back and offered Leo a seat. “Please.”

“No.”

“I am old,” she puffed. “The old sit when they can sit. You look all over. You have such an important job.”

Leo pointed, “What’s in there?”

“Nothing. It’s a pantry. Pots and pans, food, my cooking things.”

“Then why is there a padlock?”

“It’s not locked.”

A sound came from the pantry.

Leo jerked the door open, one hand rested on his weapon. He flipped the light switch. “Come out from behind those shelves!”

Lilly listened. Soon she saw Bobby’s dilapidated sneakers in the middle of the kitchen.

“Oh, oh!” said Zilla. “It’s my border, Bobby. He was napping, I forgot.”

“What are you doing in there?”.

Bobby did a double take on Leo. There was a brief flash of interest before he looked away. “Nap. Like my landlady said.”

“Stay where I can see you.” Leo went into the pantry and looked around. Hands on hips, he stepped back into the kitchen. “You sleep on that air mattress in the pantry?”

“This is a two-bedroom apartment. I’m not allowed to bunk in with the prince.”

He smirked, “The son? Huh.”

“Yeah. Satisfied?” asked Bobby. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“No. What’s your name?” Leo took out his iPad.

“Bobby.”

“Full name wise guy.”

“Don’t have one.”

“Everyone has a last name. What’s it say on your birth certificate?”

Bobby’s feet shifted. “Okay. It says Bobby Alabama.”

Leo snickered. “For real? Don’t lie to me.”

“I was found abandoned at the Star Lite Diner when I was a year old. No note. No name. Matron Alya at the Alabama State Orphanage named me. She took the ‘problem’ kids like me. I ran away at ten.”

“So you’re not a Bailey, a gypsy like her?” Leo pointed at Zilla.

“No. I do odd jobs for room and broad. Anything else?”

“That’s it for now. But I’ll be checking up on you. Get in there and stay out of our way.” Leo walked over to Zilla. “And you stay in that chair while I have a look around the rest of the apartment.”

Cupboards, drawers, and closets were opened and slammed. Mentally, Lilly followed Leo as he scoured the apartment and returned to the kitchen.

“Would you like a cup of coffee, tea?” offered Zilla.

“No.” The wooden chair creaked as Leo sat down. “Tell me about the Randalls.”

“Well, let’s see. They paid their rent on time every month. I never thought he was the kind to stiff me. I think he worked from home. Something with computers. His electric bill ran high, two-fifty last month.”

“You saw his electric bill? You see a lot of what goes on around here don’t you?”

“Ah, the envelope was open when it arrived. No harm. I was surprised it was twice mine. But you know he had all those electronic gadgets. I don’t understand why people just can’t write an old-fashioned letter. This e-mail thing.... Where’s the caring in that?”

“You have any of his mail now?”

Zilla shook her head.

“How about his daughter. Did she have friends? Who visited them?”

“No one visited them. She was a sad little girl. The father didn’t allow her to have friends,” Zilla shifted into gossip mode. “I remember once she snuck down to 2A—Mrs. Bartolucci’s. Mr. Randall dragged her back upstairs crying. Do you know that child wasn’t allowed sweets? Well, I used to sneak her a little candy now and then.”

Lilly would have laughed aloud if she were able. Mrs. Bartolucci’s was true. But Zilla giving her candy? Never happened. Oh, she was good at evasion and deception.

“Did she like this Mrs. Bartolucci? Spend a lot of time with her?”

“No. Just that once,” said Zilla. “The poor child was stuck in that apartment day and night. Oh, they went out every morning at four-thirty to jog in the park. Running in circles…why? You go nowhere.”

Zilla had not missed much. Lilly wondered how long she had been monitoring them.

Leo paced the kitchen. He jiggled the padlock on Tem’s locker. “What’s in here?”

“Private, personal things. My accounting books, business dealings... As you can see the Randall’s couldn’t possibly fit in there.”

“Open it.”

“There’s nothing…”

“The combination now!”

“My son has it.”

Leo called over his phone. “Send the son down here.” He sat back down across from Zilla and drummed his fingers.

“What did the Randall’s do?” asked Zilla. “Are they terrorists? I mean,” she leaned in craving fuel for the gossip machine, “with the FBI looking for them.”

“You can drop the act. Do you think we’re stupid?” Leo fiddled with his iPad. A finger fanned down. “Let’s see. Um…I’ve got your rap sheet right here.”

Lilly’s ears perked. Zilla has a rap sheet? Needles stabbed her feet and hands. Her limbs were falling asleep. She contracted and released alternating muscle groups to keep the blood circulating as she listened.

“You’re a bunko artist, Madame Zilla Bailey…or is it Zena Scamp? That was your maiden name. But then you’ve had many names. Arizona 1996…arrested for telling a couple they had cursed jewelry. You had them put it in a bag and bury it. Of course, you went out there, dug it up, hopped in your car, and tried to flee the state. North Carolina 1999…in the middle of the day, you knocked on a woman’s door. Said it was an emergency, your son needed to use the bathroom. You kept her busy while Tem cleaned out her jewelry box. He was eleven years old. Then there’s the fake collection agency you operated in Ohio for three years. Maryland 2012…you were brought up on charges of swindling an elderly couple out of ten thousand dollars.”

“None of those charges held up.”

“You’re slick, I’ll give you that. You selected your targets well.” Leo swiped down over his screen. “Should I go on? How about your son’s career? Arrested for selling tickets for a fake charity at the age of nine, bogus pieces of the Berlin wall.”

“Stop. I am a respectable landlady. There have been no complaints.”

“What about Max?”

Zilla’s legs crossed and uncrossed. “Who?”

“Max Thayer, Tem’s father. Your husband. The man who roughed you up and got you kicked out of the clan. He disappeared a few years back. Is he dead Zilla?”

“I have no idea.”

Leo went on. “You’re missing the big picture, Madame Zilla. I don’t care about Max or the circumstances of his disappearance. I’m looking for Lillian Randall. Try and play me and we’ll take everything. This building, your cushy retirement income, and the side jobs will vanish. So will your son. We’ll drag both of you off to jail. So don’t hide anything. I’m asking nice one more time. Do you know where Lillian Randall is?”

Squinting through the floorboards, Lilly watched Leo rise to stand over Zilla. He didn’t know she was the queen of domination.

“No.”

A tissue was pulled from the box and Zilla dabbed at her nose. “What did she do? She’s just a little girl.”

“She’s dangerous. She set a warehouse on fire. Killed a lot of people.” Leo fiddled with his tie as if it was too tight and Lilly hoped it was.

Sweat pooled under her. The sides of the box closed in. Locked down she imagined this was the view from the inside of a coffin. She fixed her eyes on Zilla.

Zilla shifted position, the chair scrapped. The skirt of her caftan bobbed in sync with her bouncing leg and rainbows glinted from her hem.

How much longer could Zilla hold out? How much longer could she?

Tem came in. “What do you want now?”

“Open this.” Leo yanked on the combination lock.

“Don’t you need a warrant or something for that?”

“I have bolt cutters in my trunk, that’s my warrant. Your choice.”

Tem stepped over to the locker, spun in the combination, removed the lock, and stepped back. “Have fun.”

Leo opened the door and whistled. “Nice haul. Is this your take for one week or are you robbing your neighbors in small increments?”

Tem didn’t speak. He let his mother beg for him. “He’s just a boy. It is a prank. A few things. Not worth much.”

The action above diverted her. Lilly gave kudos to Zilla for the performance.

“Save it. Let’s see what we have here.” Lilly heard Leo place things on the kitchen table. “Brand new laptops. What do you get for one of these? Two…four hundred? And you have three of them. Nice. Any of them from Randall’s place?” He didn’t wait for the answer. “They’ll be leaving with me.” The computers bumped down in front of Zilla. “What’s this?”

Leo jiggled what sounded like pennies in a tin. The lid snapped open.

“Rings. Good color in the diamonds. Do you know your four Cs? Never mind. Of course, you do.” They hit the bottom of the box with a clunk and it clicked shut. Leo swung the locker door closed with a bang and walked over to join Zilla and Tem at the table.

“I can arrest your son right now and with his record we’re talking fifteen years minimum. By the time he gets out, you’ll be dead and he’ll be a broken man.” Leo let that picture develop. “But…if you cooperate maybe we can work something out. There’s a reward. Interested?”

Would they turn her in? Lilly shivered. Her eyes dashed to the side. She wasn’t alone in her cage. Whiskers and a twitchy nose flashed by. Her small visitor came out of his hole in the adjoining box carrying something in its mouth.

The pressure was slight but enough that she felt the mouse run down her leg. Reaching her sneaker, it did an about-face and ran up to her chest. Then it stopped. Eyes slanted down until she could see her own cheeks, Lilly came nose-to-nose with a mouse on its hind legs. It dropped what it was carrying. Whatever it was, tumbled down onto her shoulder, and lodged under the neck of her shirt. She clamped her teeth together to suppress a cry. She hoped it wasn’t a worm-ridden slimy pizza crust.

The negotiations continued above. Zilla stayed firm, a veritable battleship. Lilly concentrated on the critter free-ranging over her body, which was more than creepy. It pranced up to that little divot at the base of her throat, nibbled, and licked at her salty skin. Shifting about, its little clawed-feet were as soft as a kitten paws. It had no fear. She couldn’t say the same. If not for Leo above, she would have crawled out of her skin to get away. Afraid it would burrow under her T-shirt, build a nest, and invite the family over for a housewarming, Lilly’s body went rigid.

But no, it darted back up to her chest and into sight. They regarded one another, eyes shifting, blinking mimicking one another. Impossible. The pink nose was kind of cute. She could do without the long hairy whiskers, but the eyes like chocolate kisses were warm. The mouse moved down onto her left thigh. She felt the critter’s weight as it curled up on top of the pocket with the moonstone. The heat of the small rodent’s body seeped through the fabric of her jeans.

Or did the warmth come from the moonstone?

The temperature in that spot steadily increased. A faint tangerine color glowed through the denim from the inside of her pocket. The mouse’s small body shielded the light so it didn’t shine out through the cracks and into the kitchen. The rays that escaped caressed Lilly’s face. Muscles slackened. A whisper tingled in a sleepy section of her brain. Then a feeling of weightlessness came over her.

Skye?

Yes. It was Skye!

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