STAR FINDER

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Chapter 52: Finding Courage

Hours passed and Lilly worked. It was 9:30 at night, the party was scheduled to start soon, and Bobby had not yet returned. The kitchen remained dark and empty after Tem had spaced his father. Stick to the plan. Bobby’s last words kept her going. Blisters stippled her raw fingertips. Bobby, where are you? Are you okay? I can’t do this alone.

Panic mixed with sweat as she labored. Her sneakers were covered in white dust. Breaths came in short pants. She filled her lungs and exhaled. In…out. She repeated the process. He’ll walk through that door any second.

But what if? She was too intelligent not to run every possible scenario. … Bobby and Zilla are in the hospital? Abandoned, she would be left to Tem’s nonexistent mercy. If Bobby did come back and was badly injured, would he be able to lift the heavy sledgehammer and break through the wall to the tunnels? This was all wrong. They were doomed.

Once again her life spun out of her control. She trembled wondering who would get to her first: Nautilus, the Dustman, or Tem?

“Oh, Bobby, please be safe, please be safe.”

Overhead in the second-floor apartment, the sound of laughter filtered down. Partygoers arrived in groups. Their many footsteps shook the building. “It must be close to ten.”

“It’s over. No Bobby.” She aborted her fruitless work, tossed the screwdriver aside.

Lilly closed her eyes and for the first time in too many weeks thought of her father and his many lessons. “Survival depends on learned responses kicking in” and “Don’t surrender to becoming a victim,” came back to her. His words strengthened her fragile sanity.

She let the old ways seep in and welcomed the logic. Tightly wired nerves and muscles unraveled. She sank down, found her center, began to conserve energy, and prepared for the worst.

Legs crossed, eyes turned up, lids fluttering, she dropped into a state of meditation.

That was how Bobby found her.

“Lilly. Hey, kid.” He shook her harder. “I leave and you take up yoga?”

Her eyes popped open. “Bobby?”

“Hush.” His finger went to his lip. “Wait. Tem’s outside the door.” The bolt rolled into place and the padlock clicked.

“Okay, he’s gone. He’s in a hurry to party.” He stretched tall. “You look disappointed. Who were you expecting, Rocky Balboa? Now tell the truth—who makes you smile?”

Surprise turned to relief. Her eyes rolled heavenward as if saying thank you, and she hugged him. Feeling some heat, she stepped back and gathered her voice. “Where is Zilla? Is she alright?”

“Short version. Zilla is upset. She has a small cut over her right eye. She and I are forbidden to enter the kitchen. Tem made me stay with her in the salon until she went to sleep. Claudie called down and asked him to help with the final set-up for the party. He told me to go to bed.” Bobby took a breath. “And here I am. By the way, I’m semi-fine. Thanks for asking.” His right arm was held tight to his chest. “Or don’t I rate a little attention from my personal physician?”

“Sorry. I’ve been so anxious.”

He reared back. Put his uninjured hand on her shoulder and stopped joking around. “You have been worried, haven’t you? Did you think I left without you? Kid, I gave you my word. In the future remember, I never break promises.”

They shared a smile, eyes connected. Lilly broke the spell and rubbed her neck. “Your arm. I should…um. Let me take a look.”

He removed his hand from inside shirt where it rested in the gap between buttons.

Lilly placed two fingers on his wrist. “Wiggle your fingers. Now your thumb.”

He sucked in, grimaced.

“It’s a wrist fracture. Tingling in your hand?”

He nodded.

“You have a lot of swelling and bruising. I can splint it and you’ll have to wear a sling. That should help, but you need a real doctor for this one. One who can do x-rays and write prescriptions.”

“That’s not going to happen. Do the splint/sling thing, nothing fancy. Make it quick. We are getting out of here.”

“Bobby …” she ripped strips and wrapped as she jerry-rigged medical supplies.

“There goes another shirt.” He fingered the one he was wearing. “This is my last button-down—“

“How can we escape? You can’t pick up a sledgehammer and break down a wall.”

“We’re going out the front door. No heavy lifting required.”

“What?” She stopped, but began again as Bobby’s good hand twirled to get on with it.

She used chunks of drywall for splints and tied them off with the material from his shirt, folding what remained into a triangle. She positioned his arm across his chest and then knotted it behind his neck. “That should do until we can get to a doctor.”

“No doctors. I have you.”

She sank down and hugged her knees. One brow lifted. “So what’s this new plan?”

“Look under my shirt. Left side. I can’t reach it.”

She reached in and using the tips of her fingers, pulled a package from Bobby’s belt.

“I love my gigantic hand-me-downs. Good for hiding stuff.”

“May I?” She unrolled the package. Two neon blue wigs, a couple of orange safety vests with reflective strips, face paint, and fluorescent glow sticks fell out. “Where did you get all this?”

“I told you I have friends. One or two are even adults. Joey-Bag-of-Donuts’ hooked me up. We are going to a party and these are our duds.”

“What!” She laid a trembling hand on his undamaged arm. “No…no, I can do that. Sneaking out in the dead of night, that risky but as our last resort feasible. I wouldn’t run into anyone. But out there,” she pointed beyond the pantry, “into a crowd and in plain view? You know I stand out in a crowd.”

“That happens when you talk. You won’t have to say a word.” He sobered. “It’s our only option.” His face contorted. “And you won’t be in plain sight. You’ll be painted with this.” He dangled an orange crayon.

“Couldn’t we wait?”

“Tem and Zilla are sure to notice you’ve recovered. They’ll put you back to work. We can’t take the chance on the return of your evil twin. Besides, once Tem discovers that hole in the wall he’ll tighten security.”

“You’re right but…” Lilly pursed her lips as she thought it through. “We could sneak out the back door.”

“Negative. Remember the criminal types watching the front and back. The party is a gamble but the best we have. Surprise and Feets—he’s a dancer, if you are wondering—are crashing the gig. They’ll help us. All we have to do is mingle, sing, and dance. After you have been awed by my footwork, we wander out the front door with the rest of the crowd.” He looked high up and off to the side as if he could see them in the distance.

She nodded, but her expression signaled skepticism. “What about Zilla? She’ll see us leaving. She sleeps with one eye open. Then there’s Max…”

“I’m sorry to say it but Max is down for the count and one less person to worry about. As for Zilla, she’s exhausted. The curtains are drawn between the salon and the waiting area. We have the apartment to ourselves. Down the hall and it’s a straight shot out the door and we melt into the celebration.”

Lilly back-stepped. “Bobby I-I can’t. I know I’m being a coward but all those people…I’ll mess up. I won’t know the words to the songs. I don’t know how to party and blend in.”

“You fake it. You can do this. I’ll be with you.”

“No.” Lilly had worked her way into a corner. A blue wig pressed into her hand. “You go. You’re better off without me.” She twisted and tortured the hairpiece. A slip of paper fell out and onto the floor.

She stopped. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know? Maybe a note from Joey?” He picked it up. It was rolled into a tube and taped. He squinted at the scribbled writing on the outside. “It’s for you?” He held it out.

She withdrew the message from his hand as if it were a live grenade. “Me? I don’t know Joey?”

“He’s a good guy. Roams the alleys, feeding the homeless, Thursdays it’s donuts. That’s how he got his nickname. On more than one occasion he has hidden and protected kids. He’s smart—used to be a big shot. He has hiss quirks, a nervous guy, but a friend. I trust him. So can you.” He pushed her hand. “It’s only a note. Go on.”

She smoothed the wadded paper, pressed the wrinkles out on her knee, and read. “Two dozen glazed. Two dozen chocolate frosted?”

“That’s Joey for ya. He wrote on the back of a receipt.” He chuckled. “Turn it over.”

She did. Her hand sprang to her mouth to smother a gasp as her eyes traveled back and forth following the scrawl. Her heart raced. Cheeks burned. She read and reread it. Then as if the note were a knife both her hands smashed into her chest. The impact knocked the breath out of her.

Bobby jumped to her side. “What? What is it?”

She collapsed against him and broke down sobbing. “He…Bobby! My dad…alive! He says my dad is alive. And he knows where he is.”

Bobby’s arm slipped around her shoulder and she curled into that hollow beneath his chin. Stunned, she could barely breathe. Her dad was alive. It bounced around in her skull. She felt like she was falling and realized she and Bobby were sitting on the floor on top of the wreckage from the wall.

A minute passed before she pulled back. She was solid, the Rock of Gibraltar now. “Bobby, let’s get out of this nuthouse.” She folded the slip of paper with care and tucked it into her pants pocket.

Bobby took a breath. “Good. Now that that is settled, one question remains. Are you sure you can handle the pantry door? You know Tem padlocked and barrel-bolted it when he shoved me in.”

Lilly dried her face on the corner of her shirt. “Sure.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “I know the theory behind many types of padlocks.”

“Theory?”

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