STAR FINDER

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Chapter 47: A Dead Man Comes to Breakfast

A fly landed on Bobby’s face. He brushed it away. “Beat it.” He flipped sides. It went to his forehead. “Did Zilla send you?” The pesky thing did fly-bys around his ears. “All right. I’m up.” He worked his shoulders and arms, forced sore muscles to bend. “Okay, little buddy stop the circling and let’s have a talk. Are you lost, feeling trapped? Well, Dr. Phil doesn’t live here. Move on.” Waving at the empty air, he looked around for Lilly—things had gotten better between them after their talk in Zilla’s salon but then of late she’d turned…weird. Again.

He bent, and the fly touched down on the back of his hand, as he tied his sneakers. He took a good look. “You’re a one-wing wonder. You can’t steer a straight course to fly out of here. You’re cornered. My friend Lilly and I have your problem. So…what’s your name? I’m thinking you’re a guy. Tyron, yeah I like it.” As Bobby turned his hand palm up, Tyron did a version of logrolling. Hand flat it crawled into a crease on his palm. “How about some breakfast, then I’ll escort you out the back door?” Bobby pinched off the sugary edge of a stale donut he had been hoarding. Tyron buzzed his fingers as he deposited it on the floor.

Tyron feasted. Bobby chuckled.

“Get to work!” Lilly roared into the pantry. “Zilla let you sleep in because you had a stomachache last night, but it’s almost nine.”

“You’re fully charged. How long have you been up?”

“An hour. Zilla and I had some setting up in the salon before our clients arrive. She has three séances booked for today. I put a shine on that crystal ball that will make them wish they were wearing sunglasses.” She turned on her heels to leave.

“Interesting, our clients. Well, aren’t you the jolly apprentice?”

Lilly and Zilla had been inseparable, real buddy-buddy over the last two weeks—ever since Lilly told Bobby about Nautilus and Skye. It worried him.

Her head pivoted. The porcelain face didn’t crack. No hint of a smile was allowed. “And aren’t you the grumpy, stumpy.”

His eyes shot wide. “Woo!” His stomach clenched. “I might be sick again. Lately, being around you is giving me whiplash. Who are you today? Last night, before you fell asleep you were all Mother Teresa because I was ill. Then you wake up a terrorist?”

She shrugged and spotted Tyron eating. “A fly.” Her foot stomped down.

“What the devil? Why did you do that?”

“They’re filthy creatures that carry disease.”

“He was injured, just a small fly.”

“That crawled out of a slimy maggot.” Spaced-out doll eyes narrowed on him.

“Damn it, Lilly, what’s with you?”

“You’re the one who’s crying over his squashed bug?” She imitated a baby. “Ow, it’s just a little fly.” She heaved. “They make sprays to kill pests.”

He didn’t think she was talking about Tyron. “Let’s forget it. It was a harmless creature. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Are you doubting me? You think I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

“Calm…”

“What are you fifty-eight inches? Does your IQ match your height?”

Bobby’s face flared. He stormed out of the pantry to sit at the kitchen table. He pouted, refused to look at her when she dropped his ‘fiber ball’ on the table and sat down next to him with a full plate of eggs, bacon, and toast.

He was working on a scorching comeback when a total stranger emerged from Zilla’s bedroom and sauntered down the hall and into the kitchen.

“Mornin’ folks.” He wore an old pink terry robe of Zilla’s and a pair of Tem’s brand new workout pants. He sank into a chair, crossed his legs, and picked up the newspaper. He opened it with a snap.

Bobby whispered, “Who’s he?”

Lilly came to attention. “I assume he’s Mr. Baily?”

He whispered in her ear. “Zilla’s husband? I thought he was dead.” Bobby’s eyes darted to the floor.

The man smiled out of the side of his mouth. “Coffee.”

Tem came in through the back door and stopped cold. “What’s going on here?”

A humming Zilla sashayed over to the table with the coffee pot in one hand and a mug in the other. “My Maxie…” Giddy, she patted the man’s sunken unshaved cheek. “… arrived last night.”

Max sniffed in the direction of Lilly’s plate and announced, “I’ve changed my mind. I’ll have sausage instead of bacon.”

“Yes, Maxie.” Hips swaying, Zilla replaced the coffee pot on the hot plate. She bustled to the refrigerator and took out the sausage, passing Tem en route. “Dat is home. Isn’t it wonderful?” She slapped the meat into the hot frying pan and it sizzled.

Tem reached out and tugged at the seam of his father’s pants. “Take ’em off. They cost me close to eighty bucks.”

Max extracted a flask from the robe’s pocket, twisted the attached cap, and poured a brown liquid into his coffee mug. He stirred with his finger, and then licked it. “Right. I didn’t think you would mind me borrowing them. Since this was all I could find. Someone,” his eyes leveled at Tem, “threw out all my stuff. I like these fancy duds.”

Max filled out Tem’s clothes about as well as a stick-figure scarecrow. The patch of naked chest in the V of the robe sunk in as he breathed. He tugged at the chair next to him and the legs scraped the floor. He tapped the seat. “Come, son. Sit with me.”

This small physical effort kicked off a bout of wheezing, and then coughing, and then Max spewed coffee. It was an open and shut case. Any layman could see the man suffered from emphysema.

Opposite his father, Tem glared. “How much is it going to cost me for you to leave?”

“Dat has come home to stay. He’s sick. He needs his family close.” Zilla’s smile hadn’t changed in ten minutes, like it was glued on.

Unruffled, Max used a paper napkin to swipe at the splatters of coffee on his gray-whiskered chin and down his front. “Tem, everyone, sit and eat.” Dull brown wisps of hair fell in choppy strings to collar level and several cowlicks stuck out at odd angles on the top as if he were an escapee from a psych ward.

Tem tromped into the bathroom. The door slammed behind him.

Was it the florescent lights or did Lilly look extra pale? Bobby tapped her on the shoulder. “Kid, eat up like the man said. You picked at your supper last night.”

She nibbled her toast. “I’m really not hungry. Zilla, I’m going to work.”

“Lilly,” Bobby whispered, “You’re getting the princess treatment. Take advantage, you need it.”

She refused to acknowledge him.

“Yes, dear. You are too thin.” Zilla, like Bobby, encouraged her. “Please eat a little more.”

“This is the girl you can’t stop yammering about?” Max’s spoon clanged down on his saucer. “Stay there girly and do as you were told.”

Lilly sat. She picked up her fork and with the mechanical motions of a robot moved her eggs around on her plate.

A supportive arm around Lilly’s shoulder, Zilla presented her. “Dear, this is my husband Max Thayer.”

She shrunk back when he reached for her face. “I know who he is.”

Bobby played with his oatmeal, one eye on Lilly. He was no longer mad. The kid needed help. In days past, she was knee-deep in troubled waters. Today with Max’s arrival the water had heated up and had risen to chin level.

Max’s eyes, yellowed mountains with dull blue peaks floated in deep sockets, scanned Lilly like a security guard looking for a weapon.

He ordered, “More coffee.” As Zilla refreshed his cup Max threw one arm around his wife’s waist. She flinched, coffee splashed on the table. “Stupid.” She sopped it up with her apron. “You’ve got quite the gig going here Zilla. The boy is developing. The imp is a nice touch. But you say the girl has the gift? You sure, baby?” His big-knuckled fingers pressed into Zilla’s hip, hard.

“Yes, Maxie.”

“Scrawny, not much to look at but I’ll take your word for it that she’s a moneymaker.”

“My sausage!” Zilla howled and ran to rescue Maxie’s breakfast. Her spatula guided eggs onto a plate without the yolks breaking. She buttered two biscuits. The sausage was added and a wedge of fresh orange for color. Plate beautifully prepared, she bestowed her culinary creation on Max. “There you are. Just the way you like your eggs.”

He came up in his chair, inspected his breakfast, picked up the slice of orange, and tossed it over his shoulder. “You forgot the catsup.”

She snagged the bottle off the counter and delivered it. Inclining her head, Zilla sat down next to Lilly. Tender fingers smoothed the girl’s hair. “It will be alright. Please, a bite for me?” She held the toast to Lilly’s mouth. “You will adjust. I went through this myself. It gives me the jitters just thinking about it.”

“Thank you.” Lilly took the toast, added jam, and munched. “You’re right.”

There was a knock at the back door and Tem darted out of the bathroom. “You invited guests?” He glowered at his father and sprinted to the door. “What are you doing here? Trouble at the shop?” He cracked the door.

“We were supposed to meet up an hour ago.” Bavol craned his neck to see inside. The shade was drawn over the window and Tem blocked his view. “You forget, cous? The boys are getting antsy with the big job less than a week away. Is the freak ready to roll?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry I got this. Bobby will be ready.”

“Good. So boss, I heard there’s a big party here tomorrow night. All right if I crash?”

“Sure. Come on over around nine. My Claudie’s running the show. It’s Pete’s birthday. Remember, the guy in 3A?”

“Um…yeah, yeah, I remember him. Tall, looks like a basketball player. A brain the size of a peanut.”

“Right.”

“Great. I’ll bring the booze.” Bavol pushed the door wider and spied the people at the table. “Hey is that you…Uncle Max?” He dodged past Tem blocking his entrance. “How are you doing?”

They shook hands.

“Hi, Bavol.” Max went back to eating. He stabbed half of one egg and a bite of sausage with his fork. He raked them through catsup before shoving them, yoke and grease dripping, into his mouth. He smirked showing brown teeth and mashed food. “You’re just in time,” he motioned, “come, join me for breakfast? At least, you’re glad to see me. They’re,” he pointed with his dripping fork at everyone in the kitchen, “treating me like I’m a ghost they’d like to exorcise.”

“Ah, no thanks.” Retreating, Bavol leaned on the counter. “I’m waiting for Tem. We’ve got business. I’ll stand over here.”

Lilly gazed at her plate. “Someone can eat mine.” The panoramic view of Max’s open mouth and cartoonish lip-smacking had given her appetite legs and it went AWOL. She shoved her plate to the middle of the table.

He looked again. “Wait. Aren’t you?” Bavol pointed a finger “…that geeky girl from the ice cream parlor? Yeah.”

Tem grabbed Bavol by the lapel of his leather jacket and shoved him into the hall. He spoke with his back to his father. “The kid’s not here. Forget you’ve seen her.”

“Sure, cous.” Bavol removed Tem’s hand. He whispered, “You got something’ going with her too?”

“No. You tryin’ to make me toss my breakfast?”

Chortling, Bavol walked to the cabinet and took out a mug. “Aunt Zilla, is it okay if I help myself to the coffee?”

“I’m back, I’m the boss.” Max’s thumb hit his chest. “You ask me.”

“Sure. Is this okay?” He saluted Max, filled his mug. “When you’re ready, cous.”

“You were always cocky.” Max hee-hawed. “No laughs around this bunch.”

“If you’re waiting for a fist bump, I’m saving it for your exit.” Working out, pumping iron stimulated more than muscles. Tem had a new gutsy confidence.

Zilla stopped humming. “Now, Maxie. It’s okay. I’ll take care of them.”

The doorbell rang and everyone’s head swiveled in the direction of the buzzer.

“Gees, the place is like Grand Central,” Max joked.

“That’s my lady.” Tem checked his watch. “Call if you need me, Daj. I’ll be at the gym. Bavol you’re with me.” He took a step and turned back to Bobby. “Don’t forget 3B. Claudie’s bathroom sink drain is clogged.”

Bobby also saluted.

“Tem. Are you coming? I’ll be late for work?” Claudie pounded on the door. “Tem?”

“Let’s get out of here, cous.” Tem in the lead, Bavol followed down the hall.

Like a mischievous evil sprite, Max hustled after them. As the door opened Max bellowed, “Introduce me to your woman.”

“Claudie, this is Max. Goodbye.” He pitched his voice lower for his dad. “I don’t want to see you at the dinner table tonight.”

Stammering, Claudie asked, “Is that your father? Let me talk to him. Why can’t we ever spend the evening with your family?”

“No.” Tem shut the door while Claudie continued to ask questions.

When Max returned, Zilla sat at the table. Her knee jerked up and down.

“My boy has a foxy lady there. Not bad.” Max picked up his fork and brought it down so hard the plates bounced. “Fine. You’re all sitting around like statues. No one wants to talk, eat? You all got jobs? Then get to ’em. You, shrimpy. I noticed the foyer needs cleaning and all three levels of the stairs.” He mopped his plate with a biscuit and stuffed the whole mess into his mouth. “Slide that meat over here girly if you’re not going to eat it.”

Extending her arm to deliver her plate, Max grabbed Lilly’s wrist.

Bobby froze in mid-stride. He watched from the hall.

“The wife told me you’re hiding out. That’s not a problem for me. I keep secrets good. If the money keeps rolling in…” His fingers blanched as his grip tightened. “…you and me won’t have a problem if you keep doing what you’re doing. Got it?”

She stared back. “I work for Zilla, not you.”

Zilla interceded. “It’s the same thing. One house…one family.”

Max let go. “Get out of here. And in the future watch your mouth!”

Lilly shoved up onto her feet and passed Bobby in the hallway.

Did Max know about Lilly’s gift? Bobby caught up with her in the waiting area as she parted the curtains. “What was that with Max?” A hand on her arm held her back.

“Get out of my way.” She pulled free.

“Hold on. You’re breathing fast. What’s wrong? Afraid?”

“You think I’m intimidated by him. What a laugh. He’ll be dead by the end of the month.”

“What? How do you know? Is he that sick or,” he kidded, “did you see that in the crystal ball?”

“Don’t be stupid. Leave me alone, Bobby. I have to go to work.”

“Work? What kind of work? Zilla’s first client doesn’t arrive for another hour.”

“You’re upsetting me and I need to prepare. Clear my head.”

“I warned you not to get involved in her schemes, her cons. I know she’s demanded your attendance, but I thought we agreed you’d stay clear or at least try. Is there something more going on?”

Lilly stiffened. Her head rotated as if her named had been called. Skirting him, she entered the salon.

Bobby stuck his head through a slit in the curtains.

The eerie dolls eyes were back. The room was dark except for a single table lamp and a half dozen flickering tea lights. Smoke from the burning incense sticks hovered overhead. The fragrance was ‘old rose’ a sad heavy bouquet that remind Bobby of funerals. The table was set up for the séance.

He approached slowly and placed a hand on Lilly’s back. She was icy to the touch. The cold seeped through her sweatshirt and into his fingertips. This was so wrong he didn’t know how to handle it. “We’ll figure this out. Lilly, Lilly, are you listening?”

She turned on him and sneered. “Leave me, alone runt. Get out.”

Zilla entered crying. A red handprint branded her cheek. She was wearing her usual séance grab, black star-speckled caftan, hoop earrings, and flowered headscarf. She sniffled as she pulled herself together. When she spotted Bobby, she blurted, “I don’t need you here. This is women’s business. She’s mine, I’ll take care of her. Go.” She shooed him out and settled in at the round table across from Lilly.

Walking out he glanced over his shoulder. The two women joined hands, forming a circle, and closed their eyes. Then they each placed one hand on the crystal ball, their fingers touched. As skin met crystal the kid’s small elfin face fell into shadow.

A rush of chills rippled Bobby’s skin. From his perch on the other side of the curtain, he could see Lilly’s reflection in the mirror. What was that color in her eyes?

Zilla clicked off the lamp with her foot switch. In the darkness, the two bodies relaxed as if drawn into the glowing sphere.

The crystal at the heart of the ball pulsed.

“The Dustman is ready. He awaits the traveler.” Zilla closed her eyes. “Shall we begin, dear?”

Bobby shivered. The air thickened. There was a substance to it. He let the drapes fall closed and paused in the waiting area to regain his breath feeling as if all the air had been sucked from his lungs.

He took a moment and inhaled before opening the door to the foyer. Steadier, he fetched the vacuum cleaner and mop from the closet under the stairs.

There was nothing he could do for Lilly at the moment. If he didn’t want to suffer Tem or Max’s wrath, he had to do his work and not arouse suspicion.

What he had just seen stuck to him like black tar. Was there a connection between the crystal ball and Lilly’s savant brain? Were Zilla and Lilly contacting the spirit world? No. No! It wasn’t possible.

Bench the wild speculations and get to work, he told himself. He’d lug everything upstairs and tackle Claudie’s drain first. His plan was to clean his way down to the first level. These mundane jobs would give him plenty of time to think.

Today he was happy his ‘to do’ list was so long.

But he couldn’t ignore Lilly’s bizarre behavior any longer. This was an escalation and Zilla or that crystal ball was the catalyst. He had to do something. He had to come up with a plan to get her away from then both and not get himself dead at the same time.

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