Chapter 54: Party Time!
“I heard it too.” Lilly’s hand jumped back as if the doorknob had bitten her. She whispered, “Tem? Max?”
“No. Back door.” Bobby drew her toward the curtains. “Wait here. I’ll have a look.”
Lilly stood stock-still. Sweat gathered under her wig. It dripped down her face but she let it flow for fear of smearing her make-up. Bobby, you’re taking too long. Her mouth formed the words, but terror kept her mute.
Seconds became lifetimes. Wall sconces, furniture, and bric-a-brac became craggy gray phantoms in the gloom. Shadows drifted down the hall, reminiscent of her time as the evil twin. She shivered. One shape separated from the rest.
It was Bobby.
Lips to Lilly’s ear he whispered, “Five armed men. Ski masks.”
“I bet Claudie was monitoring the building and thought tonight would be a good night to make her move and mount a raid. She’s using the party as a distraction, same as us.”
“What do we do?”
Booted feet shuffled and stumbled around the devastated kitchen. Tem’s rampage had created an unexpected obstacle course. “What the hell?” One of them cursed.
Lilly snickered in spite of her jitters.
The focused beams from the halogen flashlights were like strobes in the hall as they ricocheted past the entrance to the kitchen.
The door between the apartment and foyer rattled.
“What do we do? Both exits are blocked.”
“Hide!” Bobby ducked behind the salon curtain and pulled Lilly with him.
Through the narrow opening, they glimpsed the uninvited guest. It was a tall slender woman.
“Claudie.” Bobby’s lips pressed to Lilly’s ear.
Backlit by the hallway, they saw her reach under her shirt and withdraw an object. Like a trained expert, click-click, she flicked her wrist and the blade of a butterfly knife flipped out. Claudie advanced down the hall to join the men in the kitchen.
“What do we do?”
“They’ll see the light or hear the door if go out.”
Bobby and Lilly checked behind them. The blinking sign in the front window advertising Madame Zilla’s supernatural services sprinkled thin purple rays into the room. In the fetal position on the love seat, Zilla snored.
“Tem gave her a sleeping pill. She should be good for a few more hours. Let me think.”
A sudden wrenching of wood and Lilly knew the unstable pantry door had been ripped off its hinges.
Many feet pounded.
“Where are they?” It was Claudie.
“She has to be here.”
“I know that voice,” Lilly whispered.
Bobby nodded. “Yeah, it’s Bavol.”
“I saw her earlier,” Bavol explained. “My cousin said he locks her in the pantry every night. There should be a boy and a girl in here.”
“Somebody flip on the damn lights,” said Claudie. “What’s that hole?”
“It looks like a failed attempt to escape. They must be hiding.”
They regrouped in the kitchen. Someone kicked a broken chair.
“Calm down. Is that you, Leo?” There was a pause. “This wasn’t your assignment.”
Leo mumbled, “I checked with our outside eyes and no one has left the building. The perimeter is secure. The girl and the boy must be in the building.” He took a breath. “Claudie, I know I disobeyed orders, but I needed to be in on this.”
Lilly whispered, “Leo was at the warehouse fire.”
“Yeah, I remember him,” whispered Bobby.
There was the click of charged weapons. Claudie shouted orders. “You two, out back. Search the yard and the alley. You and you take the front door. Lose the big guns. Go around, approach from the street, official-like. Stand outside the door and check IDs as people leave. Pull out your FBI credentials. Tell them not to panic. It’s a random sweep, an exercise in case of a terrorist attack. If you find the girl or the boy confine and control. Tranq darts. No shooting.”
Lilly and Bobby heard Velcro release and imagined FBI written on the front of bulletproof vests.
“No aggressive moves unless I give the order. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Two men replied in unison.
Claudie’s voice slowed. “You getting all this boss?” A pause and she replied. “Roger that. I’m on it.”
Lilly heard boots tromping out the back door.
“Leo, you’re with me. We’ll search the building. Bavol take the apartment. You know the layout.”
“Leo, darts only.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“Good. Bavol eyes wide.”
“It’s just the three of them.” The strands of Bobby’s wig floated into his mouth and stuck to his lips.
Lilly cleared them. “That’s three too many.”
“We can hide in Zilla’s secret room.” He whispered.
“No. I think Bavol helped build it.”
The floorboards creaked as Claudie and Leo walked down the hall. “Wait,” said Claudie. They stopped. “Let’s take a second look at the pantry. I’m not so sure they couldn’t fit down that hole. They are both small. In which case, they may be in the cellar.”
“Sure. Yeah, good idea.” Leo sounded eager.
Claudie and Leo did an about-face and Lilly heard the soft tread of feet backtracking into the pantry.
Seconds passed with only the sound of Bavol checking kitchen cupboards. Nothing. No Claudie, explaining what they found or deduced, until at last, a single pair of sneakered feet reentered the kitchen. “Hand me that towel.”
“Your knife is bloody.” Bavol’s boots shuffled. “Is it that Leo’s?”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, ma’am. But why? Isn’t Leo one of your guys?”
“I have a short fuse for soldiers that don’t follow orders. You copy that, Bavol?”
“Detain the girl, kill the boy. Do him quietly. Now, get to work! If you catch her, you’ll have a nice payday. If you need me, come find me. I’ll be searching the basement and working my way up.”
Lilly shrunk deeper into the salon pulling Bobby with her.
“One down, two to go.”
“Bobby, stop counting. This isn’t funny.”
Claudie sprinted down the hall. And out the door.
“That was close, but…”
“Now what?” Lilly froze realizing Zilla’s breathing had changed. She tugged on Bobby’s sleeve. “Zilla.” She thumbed over her shoulder.
They turned in tandem and came face-to-face with Zilla.
She put a finger to her lips, looked toward the hall, and then at Lilly and Bobby.
The three of them listened as Bavol tore apart Tem’s room. The salon would be next.
“Quick. Under the table.” Zilla swept her hand to hurry them.
Together, they dove headfirst beneath the floor-length tablecloth.
Zilla pulled up a chair and sat down.
Bobby asked, “What’s she doing?”
“Her tarot cards,” Lilly whispered. “She’s doing a reading.”
Above them, Zilla murmured, “You are right to go. It’s no longer safe here.”
“Bobby the crystal ball. Was it on the table?”
“Yes. Fight it Lilly. Don’t give in.”
The apartment rattled with the sounds of slammed drawers and tossed furniture.
Bavol approached. The rings holding the salon’s curtains jangled, brass against brass, as he jerked them open. He stopped short when he saw Zilla.
“There you are. I thought I’d find you in your bedroom. What are you doing out here, auntie?” He flipped a switch and turned on the two small tables lamps.
A crimson hue—the color of danger—washed over everything in the room including Bavol and Zilla.
“Who could sleep on a night such as this nephew? I’m doing a reading. Yours. I heard you coming.”
“Why were you sitting alone in the dark, auntie?”
“There’s a little light from the street. Darkness suits me. I have very sharp eyes.”
“Yes, you do auntie.”
“As the son of gypsies you should know, darkness rules the psychic mind.”
Bavol stepped closer. “What happened to your face? Jeez, that’s bad.” He circled Zilla. “Uncle Max?”
“Yes, your Uncle Max did this.” Calm and focused, as if endowed with new wisdom, Zilla’s voice came through unafraid.
Lilly chilled. The murky blackness gathered behind her eyes. The Dustman advanced.
Bobby felt her shiver and took her hand. He pulled her closer hoping his body’s warmth might provide protection. He vowed, “I won’t let you go. I won’t. Fight it.” The air chilled.
Bavol leaned both hands on the table. “You know where they went, don’t you?”
Zilla didn’t answer.
He yanked her chair away from the table.
Lilly stopped breathing. Bobby tensed beside her.
“Or what, you will hit me? Look at me, nephew. Do you think that hasn’t happened before? That I should be afraid? Well, I am through being afraid.”
Via the mirror, Lilly watched Zilla’s slippered feet touch down on the carpet. She rose from her chair, straightened her caftan, and sat back down as if to hold court.
“Don’t you want to know what the cards say?”
“I’m in a hurry. I don’t have time for your garbage, Madame Zilla.” Bavol snorted. In long strides, he ran to the secret room and shoved open the bookcase that concealed the inner sanctum. Finding it empty he kicked the wood.
Zilla laughed. “They are not here. Maybe my garbage,” she threw his word back at him, “can help reveal your destiny.” The tarot cards clicked against Zilla’s fingernail as she fanned them out on the table. “Pick a card.”
“Okay. Okay.” Bavol drew a card and dropped it on the table.
“Oh, nephew,” she cackled. “You have chosen poorly. The number thirteen. Death. An ending. Transition.”
Lilly’s eyes fluttered as the Dustman entered her mind. Bobby sensed what was going on but was useless to stop it. He tightened his one-arm grip around her and pinned her back to the table’s hollow center support.
“Enough of this. Tell me!” Bavol stomped his foot. He punched a wall, knocked a lamp to the floor. He looked behind the sofa and chairs. Kicking under the table, Bobby dodged and Bavol struck wood. The next kick hit Bobby’s leg.
Zilla yelled, “Stupid. That’s me.” Her hand reached under the table to rub her shin.
Bavol howled. “Why do you protect them? They’re not family.”
“You’re right. They aren’t. But neither will you be when Tem finds out you have betrayed his trust, brought outsiders into his home. You work for them. Put the gaje above your clan. Your whole family will be outcasts, banished. Then Tem will slice you up into little pieces.”
“No. That’s not how it works.”
Zilla’s legs had lifted and parted the tablecloth. Lilly now had an unobstructed view of the mirrored wall. Jaw clenched, she glared at Bavol’s hunched back.
Zilla caught her eye but gave no sign.
Bavol removed the heavy crystal ball from its perch at the center of the table. It screeched along the claws of the brass holder, fingernails on chalkboard. He rolled it around in his palms, then tossed it back and forth, like a juggler.
Smash! Like the snake that he was, he struck. Rock shattering bone, he’d slammed Zilla’s skull.
She fell out of her chair and onto her knees.
“You see, auntie,” Bavol squatted, came eye level with the swaying Zilla, “Lilly killed you when she escaped.”
Bavol’s hand rose above his head. It reached the top of its arc and like a roller coaster came barreling down crystal in hand. His full weight would deliver the deathblow.
Lilly exploded. Endowed with Dustman’s fury she tore away from Bobby. She rolled out from under the table and matching violence for violence, knocked Bavol’s legs out from under him. The ball dropped to the floor.
She gave Zilla’s bloody face a glance, growled, and attacked.
Back on his feet, Bavol went for the dart gun in his waistband but Lilly tracked his move and came at him again. She blocked him, stepped in, wrapping her arm over his, and hyper-extending it at the elbow, levered it back. Crack. He shrieked. The weapon dropped. A sharp kick to Bavol’s thigh and he hunched. Lilly used his own forward momentum to throw him to the floor, knocking the air out of him. She picked up the crystal ball. Their situation reversed, she held it high, ready to strike.
Bobby lunged for the ball and curled his whole arm around it. The tug-of-war was quick. Thankfully one-armed Bobby won the tussle. Lilly collapsed back a few steps.
Stunned, Bavol looked up from the floor at his attacker. “Is that you, Stumpy?”
Bobby hovered. “Yeah. Who’s the whipping boy now?” He kicked Bavol in the head and the man went limp. Retrieving the dart gun, he put two in Bavol. “He’s down for the count.”
Bobby dropped the crystal ball into its box and closed the lid. He left it on the table and ran to Lilly who was cradling Zilla.
Lilly’s face softened as she pulled back from a Dustman’s thrall. She helped Zilla up, off the floor, and into her chair. “Oh, Zilla. Let us help you. Should I call 911?”
“No. Too dangerous. I’m not going anywhere thanks to that gaje.” She spat on Bavol. “They’ll come soon to check on this filth.” She spit again. Zilla took Lilly’s face in her hands and kissed both cheeks. “Bless you, child.”
Lilly’s heart faltered. Blood trickled down the side of Zilla’s head.
“Now go. Hurry.” Zilla shooed them away and collapsed down into her chair. “Bobby you take care of her. The rest of us need her. Her pure heart has saved me. Go!”
He nodded and dragged Lilly toward the curtain. “Wipe your hands on the rug. They’re covered in blood. Stay close. Maybe no one will notice.”
As the curtain closed, Lilly glanced Zilla sitting motionless, a queen on her throne.
“Come on kid. The night’s not over.” Bobby jerked open the apartment door.
Zombie-like Lilly stumbled onto another planet.