STAR FINDER

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Chapter 1: The Phantom in the Park

Seventeen hours earlier…

It was almost dawn. That time when the world is more gray than light or dark. An August rain had battered Washington, D. C. during the night, scouring the hot steamy pavement clean. Dense clouds rumbled overhead. Huddled under steps and behind garbage cans, drenched feral cats waited for the sun. Most of the residents in this working-class neighborhood were asleep, but neither the storm nor the early hour deterred Cosmo Randall from his agenda. His daughter’s training program wasn’t written in blood but something almost as precious—sweat. Mornings were for physical fitness, and Lilly trained regardless of the weather.

Dressed head-to-toe in black leggings and a hoodie, Lilly blended into the dissolving night. Her sneakers squished as she trudged along, splashing through every puddle she found. The extra ten pounds her father had placed in her pack to strengthen her legs chafed her slender lower back. She did not complain. It wouldn’t change anything.

Her thighs burned as she wrapped up her five-mile run. Crossing the finish line didn’t mean the torment was over. Next came self-defense drills. What every teen needed to know—not. Jiu-Jitsu, the art of grappling, hard strikes, eye gouging, chokeholds, and biting, were on the list every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Unfortunately, this was Friday.

“Team Randall. We’re in the homestretch.”

“Gee, thanks, Dad.” Sarcasm sharpened her tone. She dragged her feet. “Doesn’t feel like it,” Lilly puffed.

Her father’s love was a given but this acceleration of her martial arts training was torture. She wanted to shout out, are aliens attacking! Have I been called to duty? Because this feels like I am in the army. But one glance at the set of her dad’s brow and narrowed eyes and she knew this was not the time for humor. He was in a mood. One of those ultra-serious moods where he was ninety- eight percent trainer and two percent devoted dad. When that happened, jokes were a waste of oxygen. Hers.

Cosmo’s even breaths hummed in Lilly’s left ear. He chugged along like a Secret Service agent, always within arm’s reach. She matched his pace. They were just two irregular shadows on the landscape of the nation’s capital. In unison, they veered right and shoulder-to-shoulder entered the park.

Lilly sucked on the straw attached to the water bottle hanging at her waist. The liquid refreshed her and she surged ahead. She let her mind wander. Jogging was personal reflection time, when her father could not get into her head and distract her daydreaming with calculus, cartography, or one of the other subjects in her specialized curriculum.

The same thing preoccupied her every morning—Lilly yearned to be free of her father and all his rules. She wanted to be around kids her own age. Exercising wouldn’t be so bad with a friend. Or a boy… She sighed. That would never happen on her father’s watch.

For most of her short life, Lilly had never questioned her father’s directives. She followed his prescribed schedule—ate, slept, studied, and exercised how, when, and where he asked. For thirteen years, six hundred and seventy weeks, that was four thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight days, she had willingly played the role of the obedient daughter.

Enough was enough. It was time for a change, a mutiny if necessary. She had earned a little independence. Couldn’t her father see she was a teenager? Or at the age of forty had he forgotten what it was like to be young?

A flash of heat lightning rocketed through the park. The air sizzled.

Lilly froze. “Wow! That was extremely close. Can you feel it? The electrical current.” Her fingers played in the air as if trying to catch invisible butterflies.

Her father didn’t answer. She looked left. He had been there a second ago. She circled. “Chichi?” Lilly used the Japanese endearment for father. She searched right. Where was he? Had he gone ahead without her?

She eyeballed every shadow. Her shoes made loud sucking sounds. She followed her original course and jogged to the park’s center. Sucking air, hands on hips she saw her father wasn’t there either. This was where they practiced wrestling. She circled the spouting dolphin fountain with artfully placed azaleas around the perimeter. Something stirred. Leaves rustled.

Could it be a squirrel, a dog…hopefully not a rat?

She stepped away from the flowers and moved into a spot of light under a lamppost to watch, wait, and listen. He would come for her. Her father never left her alone.

What if he didn’t have a choice and was hurt? Fresh sweat beaded on her already damp forehead.

Majestic oaks thrived in thick clumps here at the center of the park. Like a castle wall, they guarded and imprisoned her. Their gnarled limbs threw twisted finger-like patterns over the toe of her sneaker. The branch swayed in a phantom breeze. Sensing the motion, she stepped off the brick path into the wet grass. A chill zipped down her spine.

Searching up and down the curved walkway, Lilly noticed the mock gaslights had been spaced too far apart. Many areas were in darkness. She screwed up her face to see into the murk, but even her sharp eyes couldn’t penetrate the gloom.

All the lights in the park blinked out.

Lilly stiffened. “Keep breathing,” she whispered. “Set on timers? Yes, it’s logical that on gloomy days like this, the lights would turn off before the sun had broken through the clouds.” The sound of her own voice did not comfort her.

Twigs snapped. Branches scraped over something’s or someone’s body. She whirled. “Dad?”

There it was again, that swishing noise of plants disturbed by an intruder.

The sound was too heavy to be one of the park’s smaller animals, a bunny or squirrel. Could it be another kind of beast?

She had seen the drug-addicted, alcohol-saturated homeless vagrants who slept on benches. They wandered over from the notorious Liberty Square, a crime-ridden neighborhood a scant eight blocks west.

Liberty, a euphemism for freedom to break the law, was a place the police hesitated to enter. Its scarred buildings and pockmarked streets were the ideal setting for an apocalyptic movie. No one lived in Liberty Square, but it did a huge cash business. Her father avoided it on their morning runs. “The street sleepers can be unpredictable characters,” he had said. They had always given them a wide birth. That was what she should do now.

She inched under the shadow of a tree. Keep still. They will pass by. It was as much a hope as a plan.

Loose strands of black hair stuck to the sides of her damp face. She ignored them and clung to the rough bark. What had her father told to do if they were ever separated? He had rules for everything. Run home? No. The first rule was to hide, find cover, and wait for him to come to her. Hunkering down she sniffed the air and caught the acrid scent of urine. Her nose crinkled as she opted to find a different hiding place.

Nearby, a large branch broke. Someone stumbled and fell. “Shit!” The voice was deep and garbled.

Startled, Lilly jerked around.

Eyes dancing like water splashed on a hot griddle, she inched back a few steps, then a few more. Now the stranger was in front…no, beside her…everywhere and nowhere. She scooted back and slipped down a three-foot incline, landing face first in a stinky mud-filled drainage ditch.

The crackle of boots crushing dried leaves came closer. Lilly bounced into a squat and wiped the muck out of her eyes. Hunched over like a crab, she scrambled to the far end of the trench.

Words hissed out from the darkness: “Girl, where are you?”

She squeezed further back into the mouth of a drainage pipe. Stones crunched on the bridge overhead. The stalker closed in. Where is dad? Had this man already killed her big strong father?

Her heart thundered. Breaths came short and fast. For a moment, she was dizzy and held her head. Surges of adrenaline powered up her legs. She broke out of the ditch, crossed the sidewalk, and plunged into the thick tree line. She trembled head to toe. At the base of an ancient oak, Lilly pulled her knees into her chest, closed her eyes, and hid behind her hands like an irrational ostrich.

Would her smell betray her?

The underbrush parted. Her stalker advanced.

Grabbing hold of the lowest branch of the tree, Lilly tried to swing up. Her wet mud-caked sneakers skidded off the bark. The limb snapped. It was over.

She fell hard onto her back. The air exploded from her lungs like a ruptured balloon. She lay flat on the ground, teeth buried in her lower lip to keep herself from screaming.

A monstrous shape loomed over her.

“What’s up, kiddo?”

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