STAR FINDER

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Chapter 24: The Town Meeting

Fields strolled around the barrels with his hands behind his back as if collecting his thoughts like Lilly had seen her father do before a lengthy lecture. Several times Fields chose a face in the crowd and stared into it as if playing the old ‘blinking contest’ game. Since he had the guns, Fields won every time.

He gestured toward the fifteen or so kids that had been culled from the larger group. “Take a second look for me.” He spoke to Wanda out of the side of his mouth. “You saw her earlier. She among these?”

Wanda walked from girl to girl. She held the sketch up alongside a few faces, then returned to Fields. “Nope. None of these.”

“Let ’em go.”

The girls scampered away to join the rest of the residents.

“How what?” asked Wanda.

“Well, I guess we’ll have a little town meeting. Gather round folks.” Fields tucked away his scowl and grinned for his audience. “I’ll make this simple. I’m lookin’ for a lost girl.” Wanda whispered in his ear as he repeated what she said. “My kid is wearing jeans, star sparkles on back pockets, a hoodie or sweatshirt, purple and blue. She’s young, thirteen, and small for her age. Mixed race. African-American and Japanese. Short black hair. She’s very important to me and I know she is in this warehouse.” A fat finger jabbed at the floor. “I heard her yell out a couple of minutes ago. Some of you might have heard too.”

The crowd muttered. They looked at one another and shrugged.

Raising his hand, a man in the back spoke up. “Heard what? I was sleepin’. Nobody pays attention to other people’s business around here. It’s kind of a rule. For myself, I stay clear of the psychos.”

“So you didn’t hear her. Anybody else?” asked Fields. “Okay then. We searched and didn’t find her. That means someone is hiding her or she has crawled into a crack, a hole, or small space we don’t know about. I need your help to take her home. Please…” He attempted to appear concerned, but his performance was weak and convinced no one.

Minutes passed. There was head scratching. Things weren’t looking good for Fields.

“I need to see progress here, folks. Anybody know of another way out of this building other than that door?” He indicated where Lilly had entered. “How about the loading docks? Small opening a kid could crawl through?”

Heads shook.

“Okay. Then did any of you see a girl that doesn’t belong here? A newbie?”

Silence.

Impatient, Fields became a salesman. “Tell you what…I’ll sweeten the deal. A hundred to the guy who gives her over.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. He fanned five twenties, held the money high in the air and waved the Andrew Jacksons like flags.

Wanda whispered into her boss’s ear, “I’ll take a stroll, have a look.”

Lilly saw Wanda inch away from her boss. The blonde slid a cartridge in the chamber of her handgun as she infiltrated the crowd. She was getting closer.

Looking to the red-haired woman, Lilly mouthed “Please…” and pressed her hands together as if in prayer.

She met her gaze for less than a second. Looking away, she pulled her kids closer.

Lilly sunk back.

Wanda walked up holding a picture. “This kid. Have you seen her?”

“No. I’ve got my own kids.” She twisted so Wanda could see them and at the same time positioned herself, blocking the view inside Lilly’s box. “They’re enough trouble.”

Lilly watched as Wanda ducked into their shelter. Pillows and blanket flew out. She eyed the mother and moved on around the room. Wanda removed hats and pulled off hoods. Snatching a handful of hair, she yanked a young boy’s head back as if he were a rag doll. “Boss check out the boys. Maybe she’s disguised.”

The culling began again and ended with the same results.

Lilly cringed.

“I’ve got a hundred here looking for a new owner.” Fields held up the money again. “Last chance.”

The man with the dog, the person whose toes she crushed, the blue-eyed little boy with the sweet treat who had called her mama, and many others had all seen her. Chest tight, Lilly waited to be betrayed.

Not a single person spoke up. It appeared they had a code. They hadn’t welcomed Lilly into their shelters, but that didn’t mean they’d snitch on a fellow street survivor…especially not to a slick salesman in a suit.

Agonizing minutes ticked by. Fields circled his captive audience. He banged on the side of a barrel using the butt of his revolver like a hammer. “Give her up people!”

“Okay. Folks, I gotta tell ya, I always had a problem with self-restraint.” His belly jiggled. His blue tie fluttered. “Enough!” Fields waved Terry forward. “We’ll do this another way.”

Cosmo appealed to Fields. “No. Be smart. Don’t do this!”

Ignoring Cosmo’s plea Fields told his men, “Get Randall out of my face.”

Two soldiers exchanged Terry for Cosmo.

He pulled Terry front and center. “I’m a serious man,” said Fields. “And I don’t think the crowd is taking me seriously. I just want the girl. When I have her, I leave and you can go back to wallowing in the dirt.”

“I helped you.” Terry paled. “You said you’d let me and my family go. I held up my part of the bargain!”

“Really stupid. Your family served their purpose. I was done with them the minute you got in my car tonight. You’re extra baggage.” Fields pressed his revolver to the middle of Terry’s chest.

Head drooping Terry turned to Cosmo. “I’m sorry.”

“Shut-up. We’re getting off-message here. Little girl…I know you are out there.” Fields smirked and sang, “Oh little girl…come out, come out wherever you are…”

“No! Don’t do it, baby!” A weapon smashed into the middle of Cosmo’s face. Nose dripping blood he hung supported between his guards.

Lilly hugged herself to keep her shivers from rocking the box.

Gritting his teeth Terry shrieked, “Fields, go to hell!”

“Yeah, I’m on my way, but go on ahead without me.” Fields sent two bullets into Terry’s chest.

The blast was a cannon exploding in Lilly’s ears. It echoed inside the warehouse.

Terry’s legs buckled. He fell forward on his face.

“Jerk. So gullible.”

The residents screamed and stumbled backwards. Every man, woman, and child tensed to turn and run. The path to the exit was about to become the gridlock at rush hour if Fields lost command of the situation.

He didn’t.

Fields nodded. The soldiers opened fire over the heads of the crowd. Gunfire, like ripples forming around a fallen leaf on a pond, penned them in. A fine white powder of chipped brick suspended in the air like dust motes.

Through her box Lilly watch the growing red stain slither out from under Terry’s body. It spread over the concrete as easy as oil over water.

Her heartbeat accelerated. Could Fields hear it galloping?

She knew nothing of such violence. The black holes made by the bullets, the lifeless eyes, Terry’s was the first dead body she had ever seen. Thirsty flies landed on his pale lashes. She squeezed her eyes shut and pushed down the hysteria about to erupt. Her father had taught her focusing exercises. When she worked a difficult math problem and needed to smother a rush of adrenaline she had used this trick. It worked a million times before. She’d try it now.

She pictured the word peace. Letter by letter the word surfaced in her mind. Working her mantra, in silence she spelled the word five times, p-e-a-c-e. With every repetition, her pumping heart slowed and composure replaced terror. Her breathing approached normal.

“Stop!” commanded Fields. He took a breath. “Leo, is it under control?

“Yeah, boss,” answered Leo. Weapon raised, he blocked the door. A second burst of bullets dinged the metal roof. The fleeing residents stood motionless, stacked up one behind the other as if playing freeze tag.

Once again Fields addressed the crowd. “Everybody good? Come back over here.” Ever the caring grandfather he waved them to him. “Gather around folks.”

Lilly heard shuffling feet. The guards used their weapons as prods and reformed Fields’s audience.

“Okay, better. Hang in there with me and you can all walk out of here. Believe me, I want to go too. Place stinks.” Fields stood over the body and nudged Terry with the toe of his shoe. The arm flopped like an empty sleeve. “Bring the daddy, my buddy Cosmo over.” Fields ordered.

Cosmo stepped forward before his guard prodded him. “If you’re going to kill me, do it. But don’t insult me—we were never buddies.”

“You’ve got me all wrong. I just want to verify its name. Lilly…right? Yes, you named your test tube baby Lilly.”

Fields looked out at the residents and spoke directly to her, “If you don’t come out Lilly…I’m going to do this,” Field’s put a third bullet into Terry, right between the dead man’s eyes, “to your father.”

The flies buzzed off.

A thousand stabs to Lilly’s heart couldn’t have hurt more. Once again her body quivered like a jellyfish out of water. Her skin rippled with goose bumps. She rubbed her hands and legs to stop the trembling. Control. From the murky recess of her studies, she diagnosed her condition as shock.

Her nails dug into the flesh on her forearm until pinpricks of blood flared. The thunderbolt of pain was good. It roused her. She wiped away the salty sweat rolling into her eyes. What should she do?

She looked to her father who always had the answers.

Someone sniveled. Others mumbled.

Fields stared them down and shouted, “Shut up! The next person that makes a sound…”

Bullets clicked into chambers as soldiers stepped forward. They aimed into the crowd. The captives drew closer together.

“…unless of course it is to give her up,” Fields finished.

Only the red-haired woman knew Lilly’s exact location. Still she said nothing.

“Fields, let me talk to my daughter. Please,” begged Cosmo. “I can make this happen.”

Fields checked out Cosmo. “You’re not planning on hurrying death along, are you? Be some kind of daddy hero?”

Cosmo said nothing. Chin held high, he refused to let Fields bait him.

“See guys. He doesn’t want to die today.” Fields motioned with his revolver. “Go on. Talk. Tell her to come forward. You’ve got thirty seconds.”

Cosmo hacked up blood. Spit red-tinged drool on his shirtsleeve. He started out slow. “Baby, you are so strong and so stubborn…but you know right from wrong.”

Lilly nodded. Inside her hiding place, marble size tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I’m begging you, please listen to me now.” Cosmo’s voice broke. “I’m with you, baby. Forever. It’s time to come out and do the right thing.”

Positioned to step out of the box, she steeled herself.

“Cut the crap,” said Fields. “This is nauseating. Get on with it or shut up and we do things my way.”

She held fast to her father’s voice.

“Just this once…for your old dad…do exactly what I’m telling you. Obey me, Lilly.” He sucked in a lungful of air and screamed, “Run!”

In that instant Cosmo performed a leg sweep on one guard and followed it with a kick to his head. Cosmo rolled toward the man wearing his coat and reached into the coat’s lining, and extracted his concealed knifes. In one fluid motion he cut away his cuffs and sent the first blade sailing through the air. It lodged in the throat of a guard. His second and third throws of the balanced aerodynamic blades took out two more. As the knives impaled their intended targets Cosmo launched himself into Fields and locked the fat man’s arms down against his sides.

Unable to bring his gun up and level it at Cosmo, Fields, like a lumbering walrus, bellowed for help. “Get him off me!” His weapon discharged into the concrete at his feet.

All order shattered. The residents of the warehouse scattered like roaches in the sunlight. Fields’ men fought against the mob to get to their boss.

Cosmo seized the moment and heaved Fields off his feet. He angled his body and the two men fell onto a burning barrel.

Terror-struck, Lilly watched her father’s clothes ignite with a puff of yellow-orange heat.

Locked together the two men rolled off. The barrel tipped. They fought and clawed at each other among the flames, but Cosmo held on.

“Ow!” Fields howled as he burned his hand and lost hold of his weapon.

“Now! Go baby! Go!” Cosmo screamed.

Lilly wanted to obey, but her legs refused. Instead, her unblinking eyes stayed glued to the peephole. She went limp repeating, “Daddy…no…Daddy…no…Daddy...”

Fields yelled, “Do something! I’m on fire!”

Shots rang out. Wanda and a guard pounced on their boss rolling him over and over to smother the flames while another soldier battered Cosmo.

From inside her niche, Lilly saw Fields’ men haul Cosmo onto his feet. They continued to pound him with their weapons. He was half conscious and couldn’t stand on his own.

Loose charred flesh hung from Fields’s face and he commanded, “Give me a gun!” Wanda passed hers over.

Lilly’s eyes widened. She sucked air, held her breath, and for the first time in her life thought of God.

Then it happened.

Twice Fields shot Cosmo in the stomach at point blank range.

Traumatized beyond endurance, a wall thick as aquarium glass rose up in Lilly’s injured mind. She could see and hear everything going on around her, but the wall imprisoned her. As if anesthetized, she watched as her father’s body recoil at the bullets’ impact.

Supported between Fields’s men, Cosmo didn’t go down, but doubled over as if punched. Lilly knew it wasn’t a fist that had hit him. Her father was going to die because he loved her. She had bungled things, misunderstood so much. Now he was giving his life to redeem her mistakes.

A switch clicked. She finally got why her father drilled and pushed her. It had never been about the math or the science. Her dad had not taught her computers or picking locks so she could have a dazzling career in the cyber world. Martial arts lessons had never been to defend against unwanted sexual advances. His preparations had but one goal, the same goal he had sacrificed his life for: to keep her safe from Nautilus.

Cosmo had not been preventing her from having a life. It was just the opposite. He had taught her everything he knew so she could have a life.

Fields smashed Cosmo in the head with his weapon. With one meaty hand he yanked Cosmo’s face close to his, “Your kid will spend the rest of her life in the dentist chair.” He turned to walk away and over his shoulder said, “Gut shot. Die slow, fool.”

Chaos consumed the warehouse residents.

Shuddering sobs possessed her. Short jerky breaths tortured her lungs. Her chest muscles cramped. Searing pain racked her body. Lilly flinched as her father’s limbs twitched. His strong jaw contorted. Blood dribbled from between his swollen lips and battered nose. Yet Lilly thought she saw a spark in his eyes.

Cosmo roared as he broke loose and grabbed Fields’ gun arm. He shot three of his men in the space of a single heartbeat. “Lilly!” Her father wept as if her name was a rallying cry.

Lilly wrestled her way out of the box. In the surge of terror-stricken people, she stumbled and lay on the concrete one hand stretched out for his.

Father and daughter locked gazes a last time.

It was enough. It gave Cosmo the strength he needed.

His fingers gripped the charred lapels of Fields’ suite. He yanked the man close and with his remaining breath bellowed, “I told you before…you can’t have my daughter.”

“No! Daddy...”

In unison Cosmo and Field’s heads snapped around at the sound of Lilly’s outcry.

Thinking fast, Cosmo threw Fields to the concrete and pulled and kicked over the four remaining burning barrels. They toppled like dominos. The whoosh of air and the outbreak of fire were instantaneous.

Fields staggered to his feet.

As a linebacker might sack the quarterback, Cosmo plowed into Fields, hauled him onto his shoulder, and ran into the center of the inferno.

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