STAR FINDER

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Chapter 40: What’s behind Door Number Two

The milk was absorbed as fast as saltwater on a thirsty beach. The oatmeal stuck to Lilly’s teeth and gums like cement and was just as grainy. She did her best to get it down. She drank two full glasses of water and swished often.

She was astonished when Zilla joined her for breakfast. Was this a sign of solidarity? But she didn’t dare ask with Tem close by, so to distract herself she watched Zilla chew bacon. There was something both tragic and pleasing in the way the gypsy weathered her volatile life. Right now she was as dainty as a princess. She picked up each slice with two fingers, dipped the edge in egg-yolk, and then nibbled.

She has a gentle side. Lilly tried to picture Zilla as a young girl but her crunching blocked reflection.

Having never eaten a slice of bacon in her life, Lilly was fascinated with the dipping and speculated whether Zilla’s was the approved method of consumption.

Twenty minutes passed and neither woman nor teenager spoke. It was like being five and she had been given a timeout. Spoons clanged against cups and bowls. Her gut clenched as her breakfast expanded in her small stomach. It growled and complained loud enough to register on the Richter scale.

Zilla noticed and stifled a chuckle.

Lilly blushed. She wanted to ask about Bobby but took her cues from Zilla who craned her neck to ogle Tem in the other room and then glimpsed at Lilly as if sending a private warning. At last, Tem finished a second round of primping and put down his comb. He strutted into the kitchen for his mother’s approval.

Overcome by the massive amount of cologne he used, Lilly sneezed. She shrank down expecting a librarian to pop out to hush her.

Tem scowled at her, kissed the top of his mother’s head, and said, “I’ll check in later.” He pocketed his cell phone and left the apartment.

The tension released from her neck. She chanced asking Zilla a question, “Where is Bobby?” Had Tem done something to her potential friend? She wouldn’t be surprised.

“He’s cleaning and painting your old apartment. Filling in all the holes you put in the walls with those silly posters. I’d charge you for the repairs if you had any money.”

Lilly thanked heaven her confidante was okay, smashed a large doughy boulder of oatmeal into pebbles, and spooned the last bits of breakfast into her mouth. Then she thought again. The money? Would Bobby or the new tenant find it?

“JB will be gone most of the day. So will Tem. He’s taking a lady to lunch.” The proud mother made happy eyes and snatched the dishes off the table, and added them to the stack in the sink. “I am very fond of you, Lilly, but I am not going to go easy on you. Follow the rules and all will be well. Your lunch break will be spent washing the dishes.”

“Yes, Zilla. I can’t wait to start.” She practiced using her contractions. “You’ll find I’ve got a quick mind.”

“You’re excited. Good. Very good. I’ve waited a long time to find someone worthy of my patronage. Now that you are here I am sure my patience will be rewarded.” She hugged Lilly. “I’m in high spirits.” She waited for Lilly to laugh and when she didn’t explained, “That was a little psychic joke.”

Lilly faked a giggle.

“Follow me into the salon, dear. Today you learn the trade. Tomorrow… you’ll learn the art.”

Lilly lagged behind in the hallway and memorized the number of doors, their location, and peaked into the other rooms when Zilla wasn’t looking. Knowing the layout would come in handy. When her ankle healed and she was ready to escape she planned to time her moves between Tem’s late night snacks.

Drug-free and clear-headed it became obvious that the apartment had gone through numerous renovations—Tem’s being the latest and most bizarre. The entrance to the tunnels must have been boarded up years ago. The general location would be on the south wall. Lilly knew that for finders an X never marked the exact spot.

She stood in the waiting area as Zilla slid a curtain back along its brass rod. “Go on. You may enter.” The heavy velvet partitioned off the inner space from the public and gave it an air of the mystical.

Lilly ducked under the gold fringe and stepped onto a plush oriental carpet that muffled her footsteps. The shivers hit. Was it a metaphysical reaction? No, it was something much closer to Lilly’s heart. She thrived on the stimulation of learning and in front of her was a library like none she had ever encountered. Wall to ceiling bookcases hugged two sides of the room.

“Books?” She went to them as if called. Lilly’s fingers flicked over the leather-bound volumes. A full set of the classics, others on family therapy, psychology, and tons of medical journals. “This is unexpected.”

“These were written by the trailblazers.” Zilla’s bracelets jangled as her arm directed Lilly to a stack. “Substantiated eyewitness reports.” Palms up, arms wide she asked, “So what do you think?”

“It is a wonderful room.” What would please Zilla? “A center for important rituals and a place to communicate with the…the…beyond.”

Zilla’s eyes grew misty. Was she hormonal?

“I so hoped you would like it.”

Charts of the stars, the moon, and the position of the planets were hung behind potted plants and propped on easels. A giant hand on a pedestal marked the lines used in palm reading. Another pedestal held a model skull for phrenology, reading the bumps on your head. The wall as she entered was covered floor to ceiling in mirrors.

A large round table dominated the middle of the room. Two cushioned heavy armchairs, one slightly larger and taller, were positioned on opposite sides. A dark blue tablecloth, scented candles, and an ornate brass holder—perhaps for a crystal ball—adorned the center. “This is the heart of my spiritual network,” Zilla said as she stroked the table. Fingers wrapped over the back of the larger of the two chairs, she gazed at the empty holder as if she were communing.

Lilly lifted the candle and sniffed. “Lemon.”

“Yes. Come. Let’s complete the tour.” A cushiony love seat sat in front of the three-paneled street-facing bay window. Side tables and small lamps, a red scarf draped over each shade, gave the impression of intimacy. A place women shared confidences. Zilla drew the ruby red floor-length drapes closed and the room went dark. “Remember what my Tem said—we must be careful no one sees you.” She switched on both lamps.

As she had learned when she’d had her tealeaves read, Lilly recited, “Darkness rules the psychic mind.”

“Wonderful…come, sit down.”

Half bent, her butt about to hit the seat at the round table…”

“No, not there!”

Lilly froze.

“Never at that table unless it is for a séance. Over here, next to me?” Zilla patted the loveseat. Lilly sat, took hold of her air cast, and lifted her ankle onto a waiting pillow on the low oval table in front of her.

“What do you see?’ Zilla encouraged. Her fingers rubbed together. Her head wavered.

This was taking a chance. “It is staged.” Was that wrong? Had she offended Zilla?

“Correct again. The moment my clients enter I want them to think ‘other worldly’ questions. Are there people who can tap into their inner powers? Note the crystal ball poster. Is it possible to heal disease by sheer will? The picture of the doctor passing his hands over a patient. Can we contact people in the realm of the dead? The angel statues next to the books of near death experiences. Can we communicate without speaking? Understand?”

“I see the correlations…very clever. You are creating a mood for your clients. Pointing them in a spiritual direction.” Her interest peaked. This was kind of cool. “Should I take notes?”

“If you like.” Zilla opened a drawer in the end table and handed Lilly paper and a pen. “The setup or presentation of the room is the first lesson. Write this down. There are cold readings and hot readings.”

“I assume cold is a walk-in off the street. Hot would be scheduled giving you time to research the client and prepare.”

“Very good. The first has a set fee. The second I decide the fee after the client has been researched. More is better. The basics are to project a sympathetic personality, engage the client in a team effort. Warn them that even the best psychic isn’t a hundred percent accurate. Give yourself some leeway. Most people want to talk about love, health, money, their careers, travel, and family. Ask many questions from each category. They come to me troubled, longing for someone to lift their burden. Often there are no breakthroughs, but they leave feeling better, relieved by sharing their worries. If they are pleased they spread the word and I draw in more clients, make more money.” Her thumb and first two fingers rubbed as if feeling dollar bills between them.

And so it went for the next three hours. Zilla regurgitated everything she knew about conning clients. Lilly’s notepad filled with scribbles. “Excuse me, Zilla.” Pen in hand she raised her arm. “Do I need to know all of this? I can’t meet clients face-to-face. I’m forbidden to talk to anyone.”

“But you will be hiding nearby, listening. You must be able to make the distinction between what is vital and the jargon I use to pull out the more relevant information. What they are looking for from me. Why they came to me. When I ask my spiritual guide to appeal to the ancients for wisdom, you will divine their secrets.”

Lilly sighed. Did she just say divine?

“A break for a snack. Stay here. Rest that ankle. I’ll get milk and cookies.”

The moment the curtain closed Lilly was on her feet inspecting the lock on the apartment door. Then she moved on to the south-facing walls in the waiting area and Zilla’s bedroom. No irregularities. No sense that a tunnel entrance was hidden behind the plaster.

Lilly hopped back into the salon moments before Zilla entered carrying a tray.

Lilly dipped her single chocolate chip cookie in her milk and savored each bite. That was until Zilla explained that instead of butter she used lard or bacon drippings in all her baked goods.

If Chichi knew he’d be rolling over in his grave. The thought made Lilly sad.

Another hour of lessons and then she was hustled off to do dishes and clean the kitchen. Then it was straight back to the salon. It was closing on six when Zilla brought the lesson on stock readings using zodiac signs to an end. “You are an excellent pupil. This was a good first day.”

“Zilla, I was wondering…this room is not connected to the rest of the house and there is no closet. Where can I sit to listen?”

“Well, dear,” she stood and went to the round table, “there is always inside the hollow table base.” She picked up the cloth and showed her. “I can have Tem remove all the wiring and there would be plenty of room. Or…” Zilla walked to the set of bookcases on her right. She reached in the back and flipped a switch. A section folded out revealing a small cupboard. “In here would suit best.” She stepped back for her pupil to see. “Exciting isn’t it? My very own secret room…as a child, I loved that book, The Secret Garden.”

It was one of Lilly’s favorites too. A place a child could be free.

“This is not grand, but it is, well, secret.” She sighed. “And we women must have our secrets. This is where I store my most treasured artifacts.”

It was more a closet than a room. Zilla could turn full circle but doing so risked her hips knocking into the shelves and cubbyholes that lined three walls.

“These are sacred.” She passed her hand over a few curious items: a skull with writings in an unfamiliar language, crystals of various colors and sizes, and an assortment of relics. “Over here we have potions and charms. Nothing magical unless the user wants to believe it is. Some of them are mere window dressing. These small packets hold charms and amulets. I prepared them according to the signs. In some cases, they help.”

There were several moonstones and many other crystals. Perhaps Lilly would have a chance to reconnect with Skye and narrow down the location of the tunnel’s entrance.

“What is this?” She reached out to pick up an intricately carved crystal box. “Moldavite?”

“Yes, the Holy Gail Stone. Formed when a comet hit earth, it is a natural silica glass of intense frequency and high vibration.” Zilla sighed. Dreamy eyes fixed on the box. “It is my greatest treasure and my family’s sacred burden.”

“It is very pretty.” Was that a real blood ruby cut in the shape of a star on the lid? She moved closer. There was writing around the star. It was Latin. “The mind hears the heart’s hunger.” She spun around. “Did you hear that?” It sounded like a cat hissed. Then it was gone. “Zilla?”

She didn’t answer. “Zilla. Zilla.” Lilly shook her arm. The gypsy startled, eyes glinted red.

“The box guards my crystal ball. It is a very powerful psychic artifact and an heirloom. It has been handed down for centuries from seer to seer among the women in my family.”

A faint flicker of light flashed like a burning ember from the inside of the box. “It’s so beautiful. Can I see inside?”

Zilla jerked Lilly’s hand down before it made contact with the lid. “Listen carefully. You may never open that box without my permission. She pointed a finger at Lilly, “Never. It’s too dangerous. First you must be prepared, trained.”

The cramped space turned cold.

“Promise me Lilly. Never touch it.” Zilla’s gripped her wrist.

“Yes. I promise.” Released, Lilly massaged the red imprints on her skin.

“Enough for your first day. I need to fix supper.” She removed two big books from the shelves in the secret cupboard and piled them into Lilly’s outstretched arms. “Homework. We will discuss them tomorrow.” She yanked on Lilly’s sleeve. “Out, out.” Lilly passed into the salon and Zilla pushed the bookcase back into place.

Lilly had completed her first lesson and survived. She wondered what her father would think of this unexpected career shift.

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