STAR FINDER

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Chapter 22: TMI

Murmured curses and clomps of booted feet entering the warehouse vibrated through Lilly’s bones. A door opened and banged hard against a wall. Her heart leapt.

She wanted to call out, rush into her father’s arms. But his vow, ‘I’ll kill you…’ stopped her cold.

Was her dad okay? She ducked down.

When she could stand it no longer, Lilly inched up the side of the dumpster. She prayed her thundering heart wouldn’t give her away.

Filled with dread she watched a dark phantom—her father—emerge from the shadows. No wonder she hadn’t found him. He had been in one of the offices.

He stomped over to the center of the warehouse and paused by a burning barrel. His face showed bright in the firelight.

He appeared enraged but uninjured.

Or was he?

Brows knitted together, his jaw so tight the outlines of every muscle could be traced; Lilly knew something was terribly wrong. She was well aware of her father’s talent for violence and had seen that troubled face one time before.

It was in L.A. when she was five years old. Her dad had been paying for a newspaper and she had wandered off in search of a forbidden candy bar. A man had slapped a hand over her mouth, tucked her under his arm, and run out the store. Her dad caught up to them after two blocks, yanked her out of the kidnapper’s grasp, and beat the man bloody. They had disappeared before the police arrived.

She watched her father’s feet shift and the deliberate spreading then curling, open-closed, open-closed of his large hand. He was fighting to control his temper.

Like tiger cubs instinctively know when to seek safety and climb a tree, Cosmo’s manner broadcast that same message to Lilly. Danger was near. She stayed out of sight and waited.

That’s when two men marched out of the room Cosmo had just vacated. Their faces matched Cosmo’s dark mood. They joined her father and stood like bookends, one on each side of him. Their quarrel continued around the barrels. Lilly noted that the residents avoided getting involved. They had troubles of their own.

The men spoke fast and loud. Words were clipped, sharp-edged as the volume escalated.

“Kill…? Like you did Nashi?” said the bald man. “She was your wife, Cosmo.”

What? Had that fat man known her mother? Lilly gritted her teeth, clamped her lips together so she wouldn’t blurt out what she wanted to scream: Kill, her? Who? Dad? No, her mother died in a car accident.

She couldn’t chance missing a word. Using the shelters to camouflage her movement, Lilly shifted and crept forward. There was a cardboard refrigerator box just ten feet from her father. Half of it was buried in the nasty trash mound, but she was small and could fit. She took a shuddering breath and slipped inside. With the toe of her sneaker, she pushed the catsup-stained hamburger wrappers and moldy coleslaw out of the way to make room to squat. A rip in the side of the box was the perfect peephole. She could see and hear all three men.

The blonde man put a hand on Cosmo’s shoulder. “No one is talking about killing. Stick to the business at hand, Fields.”

“Okay. Let’s talk about the kid,” the man called Fields faced Cosmo.

“Lilly’s not ready.” Her father pleaded. “It’s not safe, Terry.”

“Be reasonable, Cosmo.”

Cosmo snarled, “Why did you involve Fields if you wanted to be reasonable?”

“Watch who you’re mouthing off to, Randall. I’m your boss.”

In her methodical way, Lilly indexed Fields. His voice was deep and thick. He might have been from the northeast, Boston. Short and stocky with ruddy skin and beady close-set eyes. Drenched with sweat he looked like he fled to the warehouse to get out of a thunderstorm. It crossed Lilly’s scientific mind that Fields had hyperhidrosis, excessive sweating of hands, armpits, and face. He was the only person in the warehouse wearing a suit and stood out like a clown at a funeral.

Her dad didn’t talk to Fields, but at him. Even his eyes hardened when Cosmo looked at the man.

The other guy, the one her dad called Terry, was dressed in military drabs and like her father, ready for combat. He had a hint of the Irish in his voice. His silhouette measured up to her dad’s, but he was white, fair-haired, and much thinner. Cosmo’s tone was kinder to Terry than to Fields, leading Lilly to assume they were friends—maybe they’d been in the army together.

“You my boss?” Cosmo countered, “I quit you people a long time ago. Stay current, Fields? No way is a butcher like you my superior!”

Lilly checked behind her. Something or someone knocked into her box. There were so many critters and people packed into the warehouse that a continuous undercurrent of noise and shifting bodies was to be expected.

“Watch it, Randall!” snapped Fields. “You knew when you signed on that nobody quits Nautilus.”

“Nautilus,” Lilly murmured. She filed the name for a future discussion.

Lilly watched her father broaden his stance. His eyes were never still. They searched the warehouse, checked for exits. “Fields, don’t you ever think about what you’re doing to all those people—the kids that Nautilus experiments on?”

“Don’t get all holy with me. You don’t deserve no halo. I’ve seen some of your wet work.” Fields snorted. “Give me the kid and we’re done. You can forget about Nautilus. How much you want for her?”

Cosmo’s hands rested on his hips.

“One million? Two?”

Cosmo’s face turned red as if to burst. “You’re unbelievable. You think I hid Lilly from you all these years ’cuz I was waiting for a big payday?”

“You took the money before?” Fields arms widened. He shrugged.

Sell her?” Lilly mouthed the words, lips trembling. The very thought sent her reeling.

Terry placed a hand on Field’s arm as if to hold him back. “He’s not taking the money— can’t you see that!” He turned back to Cosmo. “You don’t want to talk about Lilly. Okay. How about the fire diamond, Skye? Where is it?”

As if shaken out of a sound sleep, Lilly almost jumped out of the box. Skye? Diamond? Questions—hundreds of them—had her neurons firing full throttle. Terry had said ‘Skye’ and ‘fire diamond’ as if they were the same thing, one entity. That was impossible. Or was it? Lilly strained to hear more.

“We know you stole it, Cosmo.” Fields looked to Terry for support. “It’s his insurance policy.” One stubby finger poked Cosmo’s chest. “You took it to protect that science project you call a daughter.”

“I took Skye to keep her safe from people like you.” Cosmo rubbed the top of his head, looked over the shorter man, and spit on the ground near Fields’ feet. Under his breath he muttered, “Brainless sadistic robot. You’re a cannibal, living off other people. Sell your mother and serve her up to Nautilus if they asked.”

“Why you son of a bitch!” Fields screamed.

Fields and Cosmo came nose to nose.

A few of the inhabitants of the warehouse grumbled at being disturbed.

Lilly collapsed. Her hand landed in chewing gum. It squished in her palm. Bile rose and fell in her stomach. The box smelled like puke, or was that her? She sniffed her shirt and glanced at the heap where two rats played tug-of-war with a blackened banana peel.

Lilly wished she was deaf, but the hurting words kept coming. Changing position, she looked out the peephole.

“Break it up! Break it up!” Terry created some distance between the two men. “You’re both making this personal. This is business. Calm down.” Terry patted Cosmo on the back. “You’ve made a mess of things, buddy. This is some deep shit you dragged me into.”

Breathing hard, Cosmo backed off. He shuffled in a small circle. “My kid is not a corporate venture project, Terry. This is personal.”

“No. It’s simple. We employed him to raise and train the kid. Job completed, he’s done! Give her back!” countered Fields. “I have Nautilus’s authority to take over. You’re through, Randall. I’m taking them. The kid and the diamond…now,” he pointed down, “Tonight!”

“No deal.” Cosmo grunted. He folded his arms across his chest. “And you’ll never find the diamond without me. So if any harm comes to my daughter…”

“You think you’re so clever…like we don’t know where you live. Down on the U Street corridor—brownstone number 2904, right? Nice and close to the park. You take the kid there and push her on the swings, Cosmo?”

Lilly flinched and so did her father.

“Wrong!” Cosmo’s attempt to cover his surprise fell short.

“Ah, you’re lying! Yeah, we know it all, about the crossword puzzles you used for sending messages to your friend here.” He elbowed Terry. “Did you know the kid went out for ice cream tonight?”

Lilly imagined her box getting smaller. Her legs trembled.

“You’ve got the wrong girl. I know exactly where my daughter is.”

“Don’t be so sure. She’s very curious. Saw you sneaking out tonight and followed. She’s somewhere here in Liberty Square right now.”

Cosmo stopped breathing.

“Yeah. Some trouble with the locals delayed my team and we lost her. Dangerous out there…kid all alone in a place like this. You’d better hope I get to her before someone else. Liberty’s a bad neighborhood.”

“You’re making this up.”

Fields spoke through gritted teeth. “I’ll rip the heart out of every person here, starting with you until I find her. Yeah, you know me. I’ll do it.” His spit splattered Cosmo’s face.

He wiped it off on his sleeve.

“I’ve got people searching right now. After I take her into custody, she’ll find the diamond for us. I hear she’s pretty good. After all, we created her to be a finder. I’ll put her to work. Don’t worry; she’ll have job security. That’s important in this economy.”

Created? Strange word choice.

“Bastard.” He flinched and Terry hooked his arms through Cosmo’s bent elbows to hold him back.

Fields snickered. “We’ll have her by sunrise. Then I bet she’d be very helpful, do anything to save her daddy.”

Jaw hard, Cosmo said, “If you think she’ll swallow your lies, you’re underestimating my girl. She’s smarter than all of us put together. And Skye will help her.”

Fields pulled a dime-sized computer chip out from under his shirt. It was attached to a chain around his neck. He dangled it in front of Cosmo’s face. “This puts the skids on your plans.”

“Terry! God…what have you done? You swore to keep the chip secret.” Cosmo broke free and lunged for the chain.

Terry was quick. He pushed Cosmo back. “Now calm down, both of you. Fields, let me talk to Cosmo alone.”

Fields’ wobbly jowls glistened. He wasn’t giving ground.

“Please,” Terry pleaded.

Fields conceded three paces as he wiped the sweat from his double chin with a wrinkled hanky.

“Cosmo, they have my wife.” With shaky hands, Terry rubbed his arms as if he were cold. “Fields is threatening my son, for God’s sake…” His voice broke.

The man was hanging by his fingertips over a precipice and Cosmo was adding weight to his load.

“This will go badly for all of us! My boy…he’s only seventeen,” stammered Terry. He pulled out his wallet and showed Cosmo a picture. “I supported your project for a long time and even hid you and the kid once or twice. Now it’s your turn to help me. Give Nautilus what they want. You knew the arrangement with Lilly wasn’t permanent.” Terry’s fingers combed back the shock of blonde hair that had fallen onto his forehead. “God I’m talking about a real family here, mine!”

“Like Lilly isn’t my real family? You want me to trade my kid for yours? That’s your solution, Terry?” Cosmo huffed. He thumbed over his shoulder in Fields direction. “You’re a fool if you trust that scum.”

“She’s not yours!” Terry’s hands flew into the air.

Fields rejoined the conversation. “She’s Nautilus property. A DNA cocktail, a seed we popped into Nashi. We bought and paid for her. You wanted to experiment with nootropics, smart pills. We funded you. Confluence with Skye made her what she is. Otherwise, what good is a savant to anyone? If you hadn’t stolen her, she’d have been institutionalized or tossed out, with the rest of the leftovers when we cleaned the embryos out of the freezer,” said Fields. “The kid already cost you Nashi.”

Nashi? This thunderbolt demolished her soul. What Fields said hurt no less than if he had landed a solid right cross to the side of Lilly’s head. Was she responsible for her mother’s death?

Institutionalized? Popped into Nashi? I am truly one of my Dad’s experiments. Nucleotides strung together like Legos? A science project. Oh, Chichi…

She remembered their argument and how she had accused him of just that.

Had Skye done something to her brain? Lilly rubbed at both temples. And what was Skye? Did the man and woman she had loved all these years and called parents ever love her? Was any part of her DNA linked to them?

Like a daisy whose petals have been plucked, Lilly no longer knew who she was. Grasping a truth that her heart begged to deny, she wanted to get lost in the deepest blackest hole. Tears cascaded over her smudged cheeks and splashed onto the floor of the cardboard box. Her head felt like it weighed ten times more than normal. The undercurrent of chatter in the warehouse masked her weeping. In an odd turn of events, she had found the people she belonged with—society’s rejects. As that boy Tem had said, she was a freak. A stranger recognized what she was before she had.

Lillian Randall’s world spun into a new lopsided orbit.

She had struck out earlier this evening, now morning, on a girlish quest for independence. When she spied her father sneaking out of their apartment building, it had been an opportunity to challenge his rigid rules and secret life. The adventure had seemed exciting.

Lilly now recognized tonight for what it was—a tragedy. Her tragedy…

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