STAR FINDER

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Chapter 42: The Whipping Boy

The king of the castle, Tem, sat at the kitchen table surfing the Internet on his new laptop. “Daj, how would you like a dishwasher?”

“No. The plumbing can’t take it. That’s why I never had one.” She passed by him and went to the stove. “Tomorrow morning first thing, I need you to run an errand.” She winked at Tem. He would come back five thousand richer and Mrs. Haessler would never be the wiser. “Later, I’ll write it all down for you.”

Bobby walked in and banged the back door shut with his foot. Bags of groceries dangled from both his hands. “What’s going on, happy family?” His tone was sarcastic, but no one paid attention. He scowled at Lilly who laughed when Zilla said her client had more age spots than a rotten apple.

“Another tough day at the office, kid?” He headed for the pantry and unloaded.

“The door stays open.” Tem reminded without looking up. “Did you get my protein shakes?”

“Yes. Chocolate and coffee flavored.”

Lilly traipsed in after Bobby. “Why the sour look? You are a sullen grumpy little man, Bobby Alabama.” She snickered.

He glared at her. “Nice jeans. New? A little flashy don’t you think?” The canned tuna slammed down on the shelf next to the packed-in-water canned chicken. He stacked Tem’s shakes by flavor. They filled half a shelf. “What’s with you? You never use to be mean, but now you seem to enjoy it.”

“What?”

“Yesterday, you got a good chuckle out of Tem saying he’d buy me a booster seat for the table. The day before, you joked about a client with a lisp. Today you call me, ‘little man.’” He repeated ‘little man’ in her same snide tone. “For more than a week now you’ve been hurling insults at me like hand grenades.”

“I don’t know? Sorry.” She shook her head as if to rattle the old Lilly loose from the one who had offended her friend.

He softened. “How’s the ankle? This is the second day without the air cast.”

“A little sore, but much better.” She lifted her foot and rotated her ankle to prove it. “Burns are good too.” She held up her arms, turned them front to back, and showed him. “No more ugly skin. The cuts on the bottom of my foot are healed but I’m scarred.”

“Yeah, we all have them—inside or out or both. Sometimes words can be uglier than scars.”

“I said I was sorry. Why are you trying to make me feel guilty?”

He moved around, out of Tem’s line of sight. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

Her arms crossed.

“Already you’re going on defense.” He pulled her arms apart. “You and Zilla are getting pretty chummy. What do you do all day in there?”

“I listen to her doing palm reading. I make believe I’m her avatar. It’s interesting and kind of fun. This week I’m learning how to communicated with the spirits. We sit at the center table, hold hands, and stare at a crystal ball. It reminds me of the Zen meditation my dad did. You close your eyes, concentrate, and…Bobby, don’t screw up your face like that. You told me to get close to her.”

“Yea, but I didn’t tell you to help her swindle people. You do know that’s what you’re doing?”

“No. I find things. This old lady lost her rings and I figured out where they were. Zilla charged her regular fee. It’s easy-peasy stuff. No harm, no foul. You’re jealous. She likes me better than you.”

“Jealous? You think I’m looking to impress their kind.”

Now who’s being pretentious?”

“There are role models and then there are role models. Who in their right mind aspires to be like murders and thieves? Or have you forgotten what’s under the kitchen floor?”

“Zilla explained that to me. There is nothing down there. That bone was dragged in from the butcher shop down the block. I only saw it for a second. I am not infallible.”

“Well, that’s a first—Lilly Randall wrong. I can’t believe you fell for her fairytale.”

She sighed. “Bobby, I don’t want to fight. I help people find things and that’s it.”

“And how exactly does that work? How do you know where to find these things when Zilla’s clients don’t have a clue?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“You’ve changed, Lilly.” His face jetted forward, closer to hers. Had her amber eyes just blazed red? It disappeared. “Not for the better. You don’t care about people. You’re becoming like them—a predator. You feed off troubled people.”

Tem’s voice boomed. “Hey, what’s going on in there?”

“Nothing.” Lilly answered.

Bobby leaned in and talked fast. “They are robbing people using information you give them.” He whispered, “Read this newspaper.” He pulled a folded square from under his shirt. “There has been a rash of robberies. Does 537 Hunt Court, NE, in D. C. sound familiar? The thieves knew the combination to the safe. Did you find a lost safe combination for one of Zilla’s clients?”

“Yes. No. You’re crazy.”

“You have to stop doing this, Lilly. You could go to jail.”

Tem jumped out. He had been listening. “Stumpy, shut your hole.” Whack!

Knocked off balance, Bobby hit the wall. The wind forced out of him.

The shock of Tem’s abuse and Bobby’s groan of pain when he collided with the concrete block clicked a switch inside Lilly. What had she been doing?

She ran to the kitchen. “Zilla, is it true? Am I helping you steal?” She didn’t need to ask, Tem’s reaction answered the question.

Zilla didn’t deny the accusation.

Tem returned to the kitchen, grabbed her upper arm, and forced her into a chair. “Get a grip, brainiac. You know the deal. Just shut up and keep doing what you’ve been doing. You are not going to be arrested.” Under his breath, he threatened, “Because nobody knows you exist.”

Lilly turned on Tem. “I can’t. It’s wrong. I’m not a thief.” Sanity surfaced as her shock subsided. She found her backbone and sat taller.

“Oh really?” Tem pressed on his temple with the fingers of one hand. “Think again, and while you’re at it I believe you are breaking rule number six. It was a condition for you remaining hidden in this apartment. Or have you forgotten, brainiac?” He pressed in on her.

“Back off. Leave the kid alone, Tem.” Bobby emerged from the pantry. He swiped at his bloody nose.

“This is my house. You don’t tell me what to do and neither does she!” He seized Lilly by the front of her shirt. “You think I’m going to let you spoil a good thing?” His knuckles strained as if to strangle her.

“No! Filth!” Anger exploded from her, her voice changed, devoid of Lilly’s usual gentle sweetness. “I hate you!” She intended to do harm. “It’s blood for blood.” Like a lion that has been poked with a sharp stick, she retaliated. She latched onto Tem’s thumb, wrestled it back, twisting his wrist in the process.

With a guttural roar, Tem released her.

Eyes glinted wild, sending out sparks of red as she pursued him. Bobby intervened, but this time for Tem’s sake. His arms encircled her, locking her down. Jaw tight, she was shaking, but he held fast. “Stop! It’s okay. Calm down and think.” He soothed. “Listen to my voice.”

“Criminals.” Lilly glowered at Tem and Zilla. “Both of you.” She was an avenging dark angel.

Bobby’s voice softened. “Lilly, look at me.” He got in her face, forced her to connect with his eyes. “This is over. There is no winner in this contest.” They stayed frozen in that moment.

Her muscles slackened and she saw him. “I don’t know what came over me.” She held onto his face. “What did I do?” She put it together as Tem paced, flexing his wrist.

When Bobby let go, she was calmer. But Tem would not be soothed.

Zilla made shushing sounds. “No. Tem, you promised me.” She began to weep. “Don’t hurt her.”

Recovered, Tem straightened his clothes. He played with Leo’s business card, weaved it from finger to finger like magicians did coins.

“Zilla,” whined Lilly. “You said you would not let them take me.” To Tem she said, “I won’t forget the rules again.”

He eyed Bobby. “You two are close. I see that now.”

He picked up his cell phone and sent a text. Then put it down. “Sit down, Daj.” He pulled out a chair. He squatted down in front of her. “Relax. What makes you think I would put the golden goose out of action?” It was a rhetorical question. “I, we have to do something to make sure she doesn’t stray, and since JB has gone all righteous on us, he tempts her to ignore her obligations. When I was her age, object lessons worked best.”

“No. Please don’t space me.” Drained she put a hand on the table to hold herself upright.

He stood to continue his speech. He circled, pointed at the ceiling as if summoning divine guidance. “A demonstration is needed. Stumpy must never again interfere and confuse our little goose.”

He pinched Lilly’s nose. “We were all getting along. You were happy. I rewarded you with new clothes. You can think about how he messed things up when you are down to one meal a day and shackled at night. He is not your friend.”

For a fleeting second, Lilly seemed to believe Tem’s twisted translation of the facts. Her face flashed cruelly. Then her eyes met Bobby’s and she was his friend again.

There was a knock at the back door. Tem bulldozed Lilly into the pantry. “Get in there. Not a peep out of you or this will take a bad turn.” He slammed the door.

The back door opened and Tem greeted his friends. “The other boy...” Crushed to the door, Lilly recognized Bavol’s voice. He had been at the ice cream shop in another lifetime.

“We got your message.” Bavol asked, “What’s up, boss?”

“Wait a minute. Daj, go into the living room. Watch your shows. Now!”

The repetitive slap of slippered feet receded down the hall. The television switched on, louder than usual.

Tem got down to business. “Stumpy has been meddling. Trying to put a noose around our income. Take him!” There was a scuffling of feet.

Overpowered, Bobby’s struggle was short-lived. He was strong but not stronger than three men. “This wasn’t part of our deal, Tem.”

He laughed. “Things have changed, freak. This is us renegotiating. You can’t jump ship in mid fight. Don’t worry your little friend—Surprise—that’s her name, is safe. I won’t touch her as long as you continue to do the odd B & E and keep your mouth shut. You’re in for the long haul now.”

Bavol chimed in. “Volunteering sucks. Right, stumpy.”

On Lilly’s side of the pantry door, the air thinned. Bobby stuck it out with Tem to protect a girl named Surprise. B & E stood for breaking and entering. Bobby was a thief. She didn’t know what to think of that revelation. There was heaviness in Lilly’s chest. Her lungs wouldn’t inflate. Air stuttered in and out. She swallowed breath. What were Tem and his goons going to do? She glanced at the ring on her finger with its crudely fashioned red flower. Then she thought of her father. She had to stop getting people hurt.

She collapsed to the floor. Several dull thuds accompanied by groans followed. It didn’t take a genius or a psychic to know Tem had punched Bobby. It escalated.

“I. Told. You. Never. To. Touch. Me. Stumpy.” Tem punctuated each word with a blow. Okay?

She wanted to scream at him to stop, but remembered her grueling hours ‘spaced’ under the floor. Then too, silence controlled life or death. She buried her face in her hands.

The sucking sound of fist pounding flesh continued. It made her stomach flip.

There was an unmistakable crack of bone, Bobby’s. She heard a thud and then a sick silence.

Tem chuckled, “Share the fun. I’ve worked up a sweat.”

“Give him some more. You heard the boss,” said Bavol. The blows quickened with fresh energy. “You both could use the practice. Don’t break the fingers or the legs, we have a job in two weeks and he has to pull himself in through a small air vent.”

As if sitting on the porch having a Sunday evening beer, Bavol complimented Tem. “By the way cous, you’re lookin’ good. Fit. New lady, new man.”

“She’s great. Her name’s Claudie. She moved into the vacated apartment upstairs.”

“You got friendly fast.”

“She’s worth going on a diet for. She manages Foley’s gym. I work out there every day, regular. I could get you in free. Interested?”

“Maybe.”

Twenty minutes later it was over. Bavol said goodnight. “This was a good idea. The boys haven’t seen you in action and there was some talk about you getting soft.” The door closed.

Now that the kitchen was empty Tem opened the pantry. He dragged a bloody semiconscious Bobby into the corner and dumped him.

Lilly wanted to go to her friend but Tem blocked her path.

“What did you do to him?”

“What I promised my mother I won’t do to you. If the money slacks off or I hear you are not doing your job…” he gave Bobby a shove with his foot “…well, meet your whipping boy. I will never beat you. You’ll never feel pain.”

Tem continued. “But he will. I will never even ‘space’ you, but him…if you misbehave he goes down. And you won’t be counting the hours but the days until he returns.” Tem took hold of her jaw and pinched her face. “Are you getting this, geek?”

The dam broke and the tears rolled down her cheeks. She managed a nod.

“No more pampering. You’ll do all of Bobby’s chores until he’s recovered. You will help my mother with her clients as usual. If you are faking it, I’ll know and he will suffer for your mistakes.”

Sobs threatened and she struggled to contain them.

“Go. Assume the position.” Tem pointed at the radiator. Lilly sat down on her air mattress and held up one arm, head hanging low. She couldn’t let him see her face for fear of what he might read in it and again be ticked off.

The cuff snapped around her wrist. The other cuff clinked steel against iron as he clipped it to the radiator’s center pipe. “Back to square, one, brainiac. And you were doing so good.”

The pantry light clicked off and the door banged shut. The padlock clicked.

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