STAR FINDER

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Chapter 23: There’s a New Sheriff in Town

That’s when Fields placed a gun to her father’s head.

Cosmo pushed it down with the palm of his hand. “You don’t want to do that. Then you can’t torture me. And you know how much you enjoy that shit.”

Fields chortled. “I do like you. You’re practical. You always thought too much of yourself but some of that was earned.” The weapon in his hand fell to his side. “By the way how old is the kid? Did you solve,” he wiggled his pinky, “that little dying when they hit sixteen and the hormones peak problem?”

Dying? Lilly’s breath came in short fast spurts. She was dizzy.

An impulse to take flight struck. She pulled back the cardboard flap, then paused. A greater fear took hold. Fields... He would catch her. Besides where would she go?

“You disgust me.”

“Really? Why? I thought you knew me, Cosmo.” Fields chuckled. The gun came up, pointed at Cosmo’s chest. “Back to business. I think we’ll hang out here for a while and see if my people find the kid. Terry, restrain him.”

Cosmo held out his hands. “We’ve been friends for a long time. Helped each other out of some tight spots…but what you’ve done here tonight, Terry…you’ve done to yourself. I don’t blame you, but I don’t owe you. Do what you need to do to get Nautilus off your back. We’re both defending our families. I’m good with that.”

“Saint Cosmo. Who would have thought,” chuckled Fields.

Cosmo shifted from one foot to the other, his expression turned cold. “Let’s be clear. Giving up my daughter? It’ll never happen. I love my girl, same as Terry loves his boy. I’ll protect my Lilly with my last drop of blood!”

Fields grunted. “So this should be fun.”

Lilly swallowed the lump in her throat. Her dad loved her. She was flawed and stupid, and maybe she didn’t have a single morsel of his DNA running through her body but he still loved her. A stew of emotions overpowered Lilly’s logic. “Chichi! Chichi!”

Had she spoken? It was too late.

“Lilly?” Cosmo spun and knocked Terry off his feet before he had drawn the zip ties tight. He staggered a half step forward. “Oh, no! Please…God…no.”

“Only suckers talk to God.” Wielding his weapon Fields caught Cosmo from behind and knocked him to his knees. A corner of Fields’ rubbery wet lips went up. “This is going to be easier than I had hoped.” He yelled, “Guys! Everybody out!”

Suddenly, there was movement throughout the warehouse as Fields’ men threw off their rags and popped out of hiding like liberated jack-n-the-boxes. The ruse of a meeting ended, the nun cast off her veil and shook out her long blonde hair. She tossed her costume into a barrel. Her clothes flared and firelight reflected off the gun that appeared in her right hand. She pressed in close at her boss’s elbow. The residents of the warehouse—men, women, and children—watched dumbfounded. The priest tugged off his starched collar and threw it to the ground. His praying hands now held a weapon.

“Leo,” Fields yelled to the priest, “Nobody leaves ’til I find her. And if you mess up I’ll barbecue you over one of these barrels and pick my teeth with your bones.”

Touching his gun to his brow, Leo tipped his head. Orders received.

With their true faces revealed, Lilly now recognized both Leo and beautiful Wanda. They had been at Schaffer’s. They had been spying on her. She had walked right into their ambush and trapped not just herself but also her dad.

Fields’s men—there seemed to be at least twelve—pulled balaclavas up to cover the lower half of their faces. A paramilitary unit, each soldier carried the same hardcore arms: 9mm submachine guns, knives, plus side arms.

Lilly watched and waited.

“Lock it down!” Fields barked. “Clear a space here in front of me. Get everybody here where I can see them. He pointed at an area of concrete in front of him, around the fire barrels.

The homeless people who’d kept quiet up until now buzzed with activity. Many of them slipped into their shelters to stay out trouble.

Fields barked, “One of you, here with me. Watch him.” He indicated Cosmo with a nod. “He moves shoot him in the knees. No vital organs. I might need him later. And why isn’t he in cuffs?”

Cosmo staggered to his feet. His hands jerked as Terry cuffed him.

A soldier jogged over. Finger resting on the trigger guard of his weapon, he stood on the left of Cosmo and Terry. Fields and Wanda were on the right.

Lilly’s dad was surrounded.

“Half of you take up flanking positions on the perimeter.”

“Yes, sir,” they answered in unison and fanned out. Leo remained at the door. Fields stationed himself at the center and controlled the entire interior of the warehouse.

Fields crooked his finger and a muscular six-foot trooper, a woman, her brown hair cut military short, same as the men, jogged over to Fields. He whispered, “Claudie, go. Bring me the kid.”

“Yes, sir.” She pointed, “You three with me. Take a section. Rip the place apart and find the girl. Corral any female between ten and thirty. We’ll sort them out later. Go!”

With a zip of releasing Velcro, small high-intensity flashlights materialized from camo pants pockets. Claudie pounded hers on her leg until it clicked on. Satisfied it worked, she withdrew a ten-inch hunting knife with a serrated blade from a leather sheath and plunged into the shelters by the loading docks. She cut a wide path, slashing and smashing. The tenants fled before her.

The other soldiers followed her example to “coax” the residents out of their shelters. They trampled and destroyed at will.

“Val,” Fields pointed at a soldier, “assemble them over to one side.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Wanda, your light.” Fields reached out, a surgeon waiting for a scalpel. It smacked into his hand. Turning it on he moved closer to the collected captives. He shined the light into each face. His meaty hand latched onto small chins and turned them side-to-side for inspection. A man objected to his daughter being manhandled and was slammed to the floor with the butt of a rifle.

“We need more light. Brighten up the joint.”

Glow sticks, nine-inch military grade, flared. The soldiers tossed dozens of the glowing rods around the warehouse.

As if primed for a rock concert, an eerie fluorescent green bathed the shelters and changed faces into Halloween masks. Balls of blue-white from the Halogen flashlights bounced off the warehouse’s ceiling. But this wasn’t a party. The illumination may have helped Fields, but it also spread panic.

For their own reasons, the people who lived in the warehouse had led a twilight private existence. Now they were being forced into the light at center stage.

Some attempted to hang back and hide inside their flimsy homes. Like the wolf in the nursery rhythm, Claudie, and her men kicked down their walls. They grabbed people by the scruff of the neck and dragged them out regardless of age, size, or physical condition. The numbers of rousted homeless swelled.

The hostages stood wringing their hands and casting glances at Fields the disturber of their peace and the harbinger of discord.

Earlier Lilly had calculated the warehouse held roughly thirty to forty people, but she could now see her estimate had been low. It was more like fifty and they were still emerging.

Fields encouraged his men. “Speed it up!”

“Yes, sir.”

Heavy booted feet kicked and prodded. A spindly drooling man and his elderly wife were evicted and made to stand with the others.

Lilly noticed one side of the man’s body was useless. His wife picked up his flaccid right arm and draped it around her shoulder to support him. Perhaps a stroke? But the soldiers didn’t care about anyone’s afflictions.

Val and Claudie did show interest in two teen girls they found. They clung to each other weeping. Val manhandled them to the center, patted their butts, and returned to duty leering.

“Loading bays cleared,” declared Claudie as she kicked a babbling straggler to the concrete.

Living in his own confused world spread-eagle on the floor he ranted, “The queen of hearts makes the tarts. I don’t have them. Please stop. I have no cherry tarts today!”

“Get your raggedy ass movin’.” Claudie dragged the irrational man by the collar and deposited him with the other adults. She turned on the group, “All you mutants, stay put!”

Val stepped forward and looked them over. He separated out a few more girls and ordered them to line up for Fields to check.

The other soldiers worked from one side of the building to the next. They turned over boxes and shook out sleeping bags.

“Wake-up scumbags. Everybody out!”

Lilly heard their booted feet getting closer. A toe kicked the side of her carton. She sucked in a breath, folded her feet under her body to be smaller, and squeezed into a shadow. Then a great swift kick sent her, the box, and garbage tumbling.

Lilly ordered her body to go limp. She let it happen. Her box rolled over and over, coming to rest on its side on top of the trash.

A soldier stomped on the box collapsing one end.

Lilly had escaped discovery but not injury. During her impersonation of a skipping rock, her head banged on the concrete. Mustering strength she didn’t know she had, she squelched any outburst of pain. A small cut opened on her forehead. Blood trickled down. It got into her left eye. She pressed the cuff of her shirtsleeve tight against the wound to stop the bleeding and prayed the soldier didn’t shine his light inside.

“Empty.”

Lilly got her wish. The soldier moved on.

The sickly green of a glow stick glinted through a tear in her box, which had landed up on the side of the trash heap. From this elevated position she had a good view of the warehouse.

The residents faced Fields like owls afraid of sunrise. Haggard countenances and ragged bodies, each person stood clutching treasured possessions. A brown bottle for one woman, a heavy winter coat for another. Blankets, hats, pictures, a few books, and backpacks full of returnable bottles—no one had left their home empty-handed.

The red-haired woman’s two children rubbed their faces and fussed. Their mother pushed her kids behind her. Her spine straightened, her stance firm—lioness girded to protect.

Lilly’s gaze found the mother’s. They connected, then the woman looked away.

The shuffling of restless feet, the whimpers of babies, and the buzzing of flies were the only sounds in the warehouse. All faces turned to Fields. These people had nothing of value. Who was this man and why had he brought armed men to destroy their homes?

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