STAR FINDER

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Chapter 48: The Dustman, the traveler

Bobby gagged as he removed the snake, a flexible plumbing tool, and extracted a gelatinous hairball of sludge. “Yuck!” The tub had backed up into the sink. As he worked his mind replayed Zilla’s words: The Dustman, the traveler. Where had he heard that before?

Testing his work, he turned the faucets on full blast in both the tub and sink. The water circled and flowed down the drain as unrestricted as Niagara Falls. He declared the job complete. “That should keep Tem on Claudie’s good side.”

He packed up his tools. Picking up a sliver of soap he lathered his hands and rinsed. He looked around for something to dry with. There was one bath towel and it had a hotel’s logo scrolled in gold—St. Regis. “Interesting. Claudie steals towels?” He cracked his first smile of the day.

“Hm. That’s an uptown hotel. A little pricey for a fitness instructor.”

Not wanting to dirty the only towel, Bobby rubbed his hands dry on his jeans and found it satisfying since these clothes had belonged to Tem.

He collected his tools and was about to leave when he decided to wipe the residue of gunk out of the tub rather than chance Tem’s wrath. He walked to the kitchen to grab paper towels and cleanser. He searched the countertop and under the sink and found neither. He went back into the bathroom. Again he came away empty-handed. A single roll of toilet paper lived under the bathroom sink. Not a cleaning product in the place.

“Something’s not right here.”

He began to investigate room by room.

A rolled up sleeping bag rested at the head of Claudie’s bed. No pillow. Nothing soft and homey. “This isn’t normal for a girl,” he corrected, “a woman.” Granted she was a bit muscle-bound and lived for the gym but how about a night-on-the-town outfit? He checked the closet.

Bare hangers swayed on the rod. He moved over to the dresser. On top lay a small black comb, similar to the one in his back pocket. “Okay, for Claudie’s super-short blond hair.” Snooping wasn’t his style, but in this case, he didn’t hesitate. He opened drawers and found all but one was empty. Inside a single pair of underwear, a sports bra, a trendy exercise outfit, and an extra pair of socks were precision-folded. “You’re a neat freak that lives lean?”

He revisited the living area with a more inquisitive eye. It held the same sterile décor. Not one family photo or even a magazine. Not even an impression of her butt on the sofa. He also expected with her fanatical workout ethic and the new job managing a gym that she would have at least one book on physical fitness. But there were none.

Bobby trailed a finger over an end table and came away with a thin layer of dust. “What do you do up here every night Claudie?”

He moved to the refrigerator and found a Styrofoam takeout box. Green mold grew over what had once been spaghetti. Not odd since she and Tem ate out every night. But the pasta wasn’t on the health foods menu she preached to Tem. “Huh?”

Spotting the kettle on the stove he moved over to the cabinets and opened each. They were empty as well. In the one above the stove, a silvery tin sat in the middle of the bare space. He shook it. “Tea.” He picked up the same scent again in the mug with General Patton’s stern face plaster on the side. Bobby read the slogan. “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

“Way to go, Patton!” He laughed.

Was Claudie retired army? That would explain all those knotted pecs and ceps. The bridge of his nose creased. He tilted the mug, watched the dried and wet speckles at the bottom and sides. “Herbal mix of greens teas. Zilla uses the same…jeez.” As if zapped, by lightening Bobby smacked himself in the head.

The traveler. Yeah. Zilla had mentioned a traveler that night she read Lilly’s tea leaves. The snake symbol twisted around the stick. The messenger of the gods… She had told Lilly, ‘You were born to journey among the stars. You are the traveler.’

He sat down on a stool at the center island. The kid’s traveling, alright. Her vacant eyes revisited him. He gathered facts from his memory and strung them together. It popped. Finally, Zilla’s behavior made sense. Out of character she had bucked Tem and protected Lilly. It wasn’t because of her kind heart. “Why didn’t I see this before?”

It was a perfect fit. Zilla saw it and Nautilus wanted it. The kid ’gift’. And it was taking its toll. Her personality shifts correlated with the time spent with Zilla in the salon. But was Lilly aware that using her savant talents was having devastating results? She was always, small, but a healthy thin. Now the breeze from Zilla’s dishtowel would knock her over. It’s like the inside of the old Lilly is being gobbled up by the newer meaner version. What she was doing was destroying her and Zilla told her she’d get used to it.

“Not on my watch,” he vowed.

Bobby paced to give himself headspace. What else had Zilla seen in the tealeaves? He tapped his temple to jog his memory cells. “There’s never a brain surgeon around when you need one,” he quipped.

Pondering, he returned to the bathroom and picked up his tools. On his way out he passed Lilly’s old bedroom. He opened the door and peeked in. His eyes flashed to the white furniture and stuffed animals. It was still a little girl’s room—Claudie hadn’t done much to it. He imagined Lilly happy, not angry and hostile as she was today. She probably cuddled with that stuffed gorilla. It sat unloved on the bare mattress. He picked up the animal and squeezed it. A gorilla? Only Lilly would choose a gorilla over a unicorn or some other typical child’s toy. He stepped back to leave and his eyes caught the metal folding chair propped up next to the closet door. Now that doesn’t belong in here.

“This whole apartment is out of joint.”

He yanked the closet door open. “Cables?” He counted them; four cables had been snaked through from an outside wall, into the closet, and then disappeared back into the wall. The edges of the thick cables showed at the bottom of the baseboard. All the units in the building had been prewired, but not this apartment. Lilly had confided that her father was strict, almost paranoid, about preventing electronic surveillance and she was not allowed cable television, cell phones, or unsecured computer access. They had had an old style TV and watched DVDs.

Also, in the other apartments the cable, TV, and the phone had been combined. One wire per apartment, not four…

“So how and when was this apartment wired and why did they jam all those cables behind a wall? No one watches television or uses their computer from inside a closet.” He looked harder, then snapped his fingers. “Duh.”

Bobby raced back to Claudie’s closet and returned with a hanger. He hooked it over the rod. It was wider than the inside of Lilly’s closet and hung cockeyed. “What the heck? The back wall has been moved out at least six inches.” He threw the hanger on the floor and played his flat hands over the false wall. The molding at the top fell loose. He removed it and found two round finger holes in the upper corners.

Now you’re thinking, Bobby. Let’s see what Claudie is hiding. Does she run an illegal online porn business? I wonder what Tem would say to that?

He pushed his fingers through the holes and pulled. The wall came loose and dropped down a few inches while the molding on the sides began to fold out to form the legs of a table. He adjusted his grip so as not to drop it.

“What’s taking you so long up here?” The voice lacked energy, and breathy whistles hung between words.

“Damn.” Spooked, Bobby fumbled with the wall. It tilted. He got a three-second glimpse of monitors. He juggled to work the wall back in place.

Stalling he called out, “Who’s there?”

“Max.”

The sound of footsteps and wheezing coming down the hall made Bobby’s nimble fingers move faster. Snap! He closed the closet doors, hoisted the toolbox, and walked headlong into Max at the bedroom door.

“I’m finished.”

Max peered over Bobby’s head. “What the devil were you doing in there?” He rasped. “Napping?”

“Checking for leaks. The pipes run in-between these walls.” Bobby was sure Max knew nothing about plumbing. “Everything’s fixed. No more clog.”

Max fell back into the hall leaving space for Bobby to walk by him. He smacked him on the back of the head as he passed.

Bobby mumbled, “Now I know who taught Zilla that move.”

“What? Never mind. Get on with the vacuuming.”

“I was just about to…”

“Don’t talk. Do. My son has let this place fall apart. The boy never liked being a landlord. Hell, he never liked any kind of work. Thought he was worth more than the rest of us. His mother puts ideas in his head.” His index finger pointed at his temple and twisted like he was tightening a screw. “Go. Earn your keep.” Max’s veined hand whirled. “Give me those keys.”

“Yes, sir.” Bobby handed over the master ring of keys and walked out. The vacuum cleaner sat ready outside the door. Plugging it into a wall socket he began to draw the wand over the hall carpet.

A flyer poked out under the bottom of a door. He shut off the vacuum and picked it up the paper so it wouldn’t stop up the vacuum. It was for Saturday night’s big party. As he read it he was struck by an idea.

“Get workin’ stumpy.” Max glared.

He watched Max miss the keyhole several times and chortled. The old man locked up, clipped the ring to his belt, and started weaving down the steps.

When he reached the second-floor landing he signaled to Bobby to shut off the vacuum. He coughed and pointed at the ceiling. “And knock down the cobwebs in the corners.”

He gave Max a ‘thumbs up’ and restarted the sweeper. Meanwhile Bobby was concocting excuses that would get him back into Claudie’s apartment for a second look behind that wall at those computer monitors. He spotted the decorative cornice opposite the stairs and moved closer. “My wand won’t reach. I’ll need the ladder.” Light reflected off something in the corner.

“Is that a camera?” Another of Zilla’s predictions struck him—the slender twigs lined up on the side of a teacup like black worms. Zilla had seen them and told Lilly it meant a spy was close by. Man this is bad. His gut knotted. They, Zilla and Nautilus, are coming after the kid from all angles, the physical and spiritual.

He glanced at Claudie’s door then jumped when Max coughed. He’d have to watch his back and his front. A new plan was urgently needed. His hands returned to his chores as his mind plotted their escape options. He grinned. Who doesn’t like partying?

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