STAR FINDER

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Chapter 51: Old Times Are the Best Times?

It was seven o’clock on Saturday evening—T minus three hours, and counting…Lilly focused on the task at hand: demolition.

Tearing into a wall preempted her thoughts about all the people she had duped while under the influence. Her earlier conversation with Skye diluted some of that pain and clarified the remaining blurry spots.

Their connection had been all velvet, in exact contrast to the Dustman who had been like sandpaper to her mind. Now knowing who Skye was, Lilly was cheered by her sensitive presence. Like a good grandmother, she had recognized Lilly’s fragile state and expressed that she too had been worried. It turned out that something had blocked Skye from reaching out to Lilly. They agreed it was the Dustman.

The gentle Skye had asked permission to join their minds, and together they had read Lilly’s memory cells. It wasn’t a pleasant trip. She explained that Zilla’s crystal ball possessed dark energy. “It deadens the effects of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Without the hormones’ calming effect, aggression, violence, and all manner of excesses take over.”

They conversed as colleagues, equals.

Skye had added, that the urges become unmanageable. “It is similar to a drug addict receiving a dose of heroin. I know that is hard for you to grasp, Lilly. But, the dark energy changes the brain’s chemical structure and leaves the exposed person with what earth scientists call the combative or ‘warrior’s’ brain.” Skye was a great teacher.

Thanks to Bobby’s actions, Lilly had escaped the crystal’s influence before there was permanent damage. She doubted Zilla knew the real impact it had on her, but it was a tremendous relief to know her evil self would not return as long as Lilly kept her distance from the salon. That burden removed, she could think forward to her escape.

Lilly and Bobby had talked it through. She would pretend to continue to be the sick evil twin. No one but Zilla would brave catching the flu and come into the pantry, so Lilly labored, for the most part undisturbed. Tem wasn’t there to harass her—his days were spent with Claudie.

“Poor Zilla...” It also bothered Lilly to have Zilla agonizing over her health. Every few hours, she’d sneak away from the demanding Max to place a cool hand on her apprentice’s forehead and check her pulse. A part of Lilly wanted to confess and erase the lines of anguish etched on the gypsy’s face, but then she remembered the Dustman.

“I know there’s kindness in Zilla,” she had told Bobby.

According to Skye, neither Zilla nor Tem could be salvaged. Long exposure to the crystal ball had fixed them into criminals. Picturing Zilla’s bruised arms, she yanked harder at the corner of the soft paper that covered the walls. Max was flat out immoral without the excuse of murky energy.

“We have a deadline. Fewer musings, more moving.” A leftover symptom from the dark matter was that her mind had a tendency to wander off task, and so she often admonished herself.

Tem had built the pantry addition using scrounged materials, no insulation, and too few nails. It was definitely not up to code. Ripping open a hole near the baseboard was not difficult.

Earlier Lilly and Bobby had put their heads together and sorted out the information passed on by Bobby’s family. Now they knew Tem and Nautilus had men patrolling the perimeter. Using the normal exits, doors, would leave Bobby and Lilly exposed on the streets. That option was too dangerous. Lilly gave it a less than twelve-percent chance of success, which sealed the deal and they moved on to Plan B: the tunnels. It was fortunate Bobby knew this building inside and out. He had told her that the outer walls of were brick except for the one between the pantry and the bathroom. She worked on it now and found he had been correct—the wallboard lifted and broke off easily.

It was what was behind the wall that Lilly labored to expose.

There was a channel or utility space used for the plumbing, electric, and heat ducts. It ran from the third floor all the way down to the basement. During pantry construction, Tem had built it wider than normal. Doing repairs Bobby had seen the gap and knew it was large enough for Lilly and him to fit into. The plan was for her to create a hole and later when Bobby returned to the pantry and was locked in for the night, the two of them would shimmy down the pipes to the cellar where Bobby had stashed a sledgehammer. When the party kicked into high gear and was at its loudest (they’d estimated around ten o’clock) Lilly would point out the location of the tunnel entrance and he would knock a hole through the foundation brick wall. Then they’d run into the tunnels and disappear. Bobby’s family had been alerted and would be waiting at the point where they would exit.

Lilly’s “flu” was coming in handy. Zilla insisted she rest in the pantry and keep her germs to herself. She put the alone time to good use. Lilly’s nails scrapped back more flaky patches of wallboard. Then, she stabbed and pried with a screwdriver. This is coming off more easily than I thought.

She threw a handful of small pieces of demo debris in with her puke for Bobby to discard later. She peeked in. “No fear of anyone else touching that bucket.”

Her belly rumbled. That was the downside to faking illness. She was starving. The peanut butter and mayo sandwich, now her favorite food, that Bobby had smuggled in earlier had not extinguished the cravings. Stuck pretending to be the sickly girl, she couldn’t ask for more.

Her stomach again voiced obnoxious complaints. “Down, boy. You’ll just have to roll on without being feed.” She patted her tummy.

The door creaked and the barrel bolt slid back. Someone was coming. Propping her mattress up to cover the hole Lilly primed herself for visitors by going limp and sleepy. She moaned as Bobby entered.

“A little less drama.”

“Oh, it’s you. You said to act sick.”

They spoke in hushed tones.

“Sick, not appendicitis-on-your-last-leg groaning.”

“Okay.”

“How’s the work?”

“Great. Slow. Tedious. It’s damp and comes off in small bits. But without breaks for food or visitors, I should make the deadline.”

“I hope you’re not ruining your manicure.”

“I’ll live.”

“Yeah, well it won’t be funny if we get into the cellar and you can’t find the tunnels. Are you sure you know where the opening is and how to navigate the passages? I don’t want to live down there and become mole man.”

“If you weren’t worrying, you wouldn’t be breathing Bobby Alabama.” Lilly brushed the dirt off and her hands braced on her hips. “I told you the tunnel opening is in the center of the building, right under the stairs below the foyer.” She leaned into Bobby’s space. “Skye showed me. Are you challenging my abilities? This is what I do. I’m one hundred percent sure!”

“Don’t get your feathers ruffled.”

Max’s gruff voice interrupted. “You! The midget.” A chair banged. “Get out here. It’s time to pick up my pi…zza. And beer. This stupid hag forgot my six-pack.”

“He’s taking care of Lilly,” a timid Zilla replied. “I’ll go out and get your beer and I can have the pizza delivered, Maxie.”

Smack!

Lilly jumped as if she, not Zilla had been slapped. Balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to charge into the kitchen Bobby caught her arm. “No.”

They heard a second whack and Zilla hit the floor.

Bellowing, Max snarled, “Dumb gypsy! It will be cold. And I’m not paying the jerk delivery guy for cold pi…zza!”

Lilly closed her eyes, hands fisted by her sides. Bobby’s fingers clamped down tighter on her upper arms.

“I’ll go. You’re sick, remember.” He pointed at her, and shook his finger. “No matter what you hear, don’t make a sound. Stick to the plan.” He walked out, closing and bolting the door.

Lilly wondered if he was securing her safety or Max’s. But in her weakened state, she was in no condition to defend Zilla.

“What can I do for you, Max?”

“About time, stumpy. I need my beer and pizza. If the pie’s cold and leathery when you get back, you’ll get shum of what I gave her.”

Lilly put her ear to the pantry door. Slurred words and rambling, Max was drunk for sure.

There was scuffling. Someone or something collided with the furniture. Lilly prayed it was Max stumbling about and not Bobby or Zilla suffering his abuse.

“Get away from her, stumpy.”

“Let me help her, Max.”

“She stays on the floor until I say she can get up.”

“No, Max. She’s bleeding.”

“I said get away!”

Bobby’s ear piercing scream hit Lilly with the overwhelming desire to protect. She was outraged by the way father and son used violence to control. Worthless behind the locked door she mouthed, “Stick to the plan, stick to the plan...” She glanced at the bucket and felt sick and weak all over again.

Thundering feet approached. Tem roared into the kitchen. “I came back for an extension cord, and find this? Bobby helps Daj and you whack him with the iron skillet? If his arm’s broken he’s no good to me. You worthless piece of…”

She figured Tem’s concern for Bobby was more for his part in the upcoming caper. She didn’t know what was worse: imagining the ordeal that was going on in the kitchen or living it.

“Daj? Oh, Daj. You’re hurt.”

A chair was moved and she pictured Tem supporting his mother—a tender moment.

“No. I’m fine. It was my fault.” She whimpered.

“Sit, Daj,” Tem ordered, “Don’t move off that chair. Let me see your arms. Roll back your sleeves, daj.” He released a feral growl. “Why did you hide this from me? Why do you care for him?”

“I once loved him.”

“Well, he doesn’t love you. Go to the bathroom and take a gander in the mirror and see if that looks like love.”

Lilly traced Tem’s footsteps as he crossed the kitchen.

“At it again, old man?

Someone exhaled, then thwack. Air exploded as if a pressure valve had been released. The hiss lined up with Tem’s grunts.

Had Tem punched his father?

Coughing, hacking and machine-gun barking breaths ensued. It had to be Max. Several dull thuds, one, two, three—and a body hit the floor.

She had heard those exact sounds the night Bobby became her whipping boy.

“Did you really think you could move back in and treat us like animals? Like, slaves? You’re not our master anymore. I’m not some sniveling kid and she’s not your punching bag.”

Tem’s feet paced, faster and faster. He was frenzied.

“Stay down old man! Or I’ll put you down.”

What was Tem thinking? She didn’t wait long for her answer.

“Stumpy, hand me the duct tape.”

“No, son, please. I’m your father. I have trouble breathing.”

“Tem, don’t do this.” Zilla sobbed.

“Bobby, get a towel and some ice for that cut by my mother’s eye. Get some for your wrist too. Then take her to the salon. Both of you wait there. I can take care of the old man by myself.”

Bobby objected, “Tem, this isn’t a good idea. He’ll die.”

“Go! You did me a solid trying to help Daj but if you get in my way there’s room for one more.”

Zilla and Bobby’s footsteps faded from the kitchen. Next came the repeated ripping of tape that stirred Lilly’s own bad memories.

Lilly didn’t like Max but…but what? She would have punched him herself if she were out there. However, sealing him under the floor, that was mind-blowing. Would this be Max’s coffin? Did he deserve this punishment?

“Tem, you can’t put me down there all alone.” Max pleaded.

“Who said I was going to put you down there alone?”

Not alone? Maybe there was another body down there...

The trapdoor creaked, and she remembered how she felt looking down into that hole. To be bound as Max was and then be stuffed into that little box added a new dimension to her fear.

There was the crinkle of a plastic tarp. “Let me prop you up, Dad. You might want to say hello. Recognize her?”

Max gurgled and simpered through his taped mouth.

“Hard to tell? Right. Check out the blond hair. What was her name? Something exotic. I know—Jasmine. She didn’t take your break up well. Seems when you disappeared you left not only your family but also your girlfriend carrying your gambling debts. Some very nasty men wanted to know where we lived. One night, while Daj was out, Jasmine arrived at our door. She was bent on blackmailing me. Said if I didn’t pay, she’d give this address to those same nasty men. Make sure they put Daj in the hospital.”

Max began to snivel.

Seconds ticked by. Then Tem’s dam of sanity burst. The rupture of long-suppressed resentment spilled out in a torrential mix of crying and screams. He was a raging freight train.

“You left Daj crushed and me broken!” A metal pot hit the pantry door. Next a wooden chair. “And on top of that, you didn’t care if we paid the price for your debts!”

Dishes shattered and pots and pans were hurled. They crashed into walls, sink, and furniture. “You took every penny my mother made and squandered it on other women. You knew they’d come after us for the money. You treated us like dogs. But you’re the real animal!”

Tem slowed, his next words were eerie and precise. “And you know, animals have to be trained.”

Lilly heard a dragging sound.

“What was that you told Daj when you came home? Oh yeah—you came back for ‘old times sake.’ Well, here you are. Enjoy.” There was a heavy thud. “You and Jasmine can be together again…like old times.”

The trapdoor slammed with a final thud.

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