STAR FINDER

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Chapter 25: Fire, Fire, Pants on Fire

Set free, the fire began its rampage. Trash or treasure, human or animal, all became fuel for the blaze. The flames spread like melting butter. Patches of the brittle rubbish ignited like rockets detonated on Fourth of July. Red-yellow tongues licked the bricks, straining to reach the second-floor catwalk. Within moments, the garbage at the far end of the warehouse was completely engulfed.

The pressure on Lilly’s heart was instant and searing, like the worst of nightmares—the ones that leave you paralyzed. Stupefied she dragged herself out of the box and moved toward where her dad had fallen.

One last look...she must be certain.

Truly alone for the first time in her life Lilly flashed back to when she had refused her dad a goodnight hug. It sickened her. She vomited. She saw everything and nothing. “Skye?” she whispered the name. But, like her father, Skye was gone.

Weak and limping, she struggled forward. A fence of flames blocked her path. Denied, she reversed direction—and followed orders. Her father’s last. To do otherwise would dishonor him.

Lilly pushed off as he had commanded.

The searing heat kissed her heels as she joined the stampede. Knees churning, hands clawing, and feet grinding she ran. The thrashing bodies were like blades inside a blender. Tossed about, she gave herself over to the herd, but smaller than the adults she couldn’t compete for a place in the pack. She stayed on the fringe and worked her way toward the exit.

Like a ravenous monster, the fire gobbled up oxygen and the escaping residents choked and gagged. The wall of heat scorched lungs. Lilly pulled the bottom of her shirt up to cover her nose and mouth.

Time moved faster than gravity allowed. Adrenaline and the most basic instinct to survive fed her muscles.

Confusion reigned. Shrouded in smoke, the fleeing homeless zigzagged like scared rabbits as the repeat of automatic weapons rang out. Splinters and chunks of wood sailed through the air and became lethal daggers. Someone fell and disappeared beneath the crushing tide of feet.

The second and third volleys of gunfire were ignored as everyone plunged headlong for the exit to live or die.

Wanda walking calm and focused among the flames. Duty first.

Lilly separated from the group and slipped in behind a dumpster. She listened to Wanda bark out orders. “If there’s enough of the boss to salvage, get him out of here!”

An arm waved, beckoned for help through the haze. Fields had dragged himself to the edge, suit, and shoes smoldering.

Had her father managed to haul himself to safety?

Two soldiers threw sheets of plywood on top of the fire temporarily smothering the flames. They dashed in and extracted Fields. “Got him.”

“Leo, take charge. Push through them,” Wanda pointed at the residents, “and then hold your position. Shoot anyone who gets in your way. Keep that lane to the exit open or we’re not making it out of here!” Then she yanked Leo’s arm. “What about Randall?”

He shook his head. “No sign of him.”

“Okay. Get Fields out of here. We’re still on mission. Set up a perimeter. Watch for the kid.”

“I don’t know if we have enough men to secure the area outside,” said Leo. “My cell is fried, so help’s not coming.”

“Mine too. Do what you can. Remember we need the girl. Alive.”

Leo kissed Wanda on the forehead. “Don’t take too long or I’m coming in after you.”

She returned her husband’s smile, patted his cheek. “Go! Make me a road.”

Four men hoisted Fields onto their shoulders as if he were a revered fallen warrior. In their free hands they brought up weapons. They shot from the hip cutting down the residents as they plowed forward.

Flames behind and guns in front of her, Lilly rejoined the homeless. She galloped over the fallen without breaking stride. It tortured her to ignore the moans and screams for help but she kept moving. There would be no heroes tonight, only survivors.

A shopping cart full of melting plastic bottles careened from nowhere. It slammed into Lilly and knocked her legs out from under her. She landed in an armchair. Energy spent, she collapsed. A dog howled. Lilly saw the poodle cradled in his owner’s arms, its tongue lolling out the corner of his mouth, the pink bow blackened.

“Get up! Kid, get up!” The red-haired woman kicked Lilly. When she didn’t move the woman put down one of her children, grabbed her upper arm, and yanked Lilly onto her feet. “Move damn it! Go!” Then she fled carrying a child on each hip.

Floundering along, Lilly sucked in the rancid excuse for air and gagged. Someone stepped on the heel of her sneaker. It peeled off. The cuff of her pants caught on debris, a nail. She yanked her leg free ripping her jeans and stumbled into splintered glass that cut the bottom of her foot. She kept running.

Her eyes stung. The hairs on her arms were singed. She’d seen Fields’s face as they carried him out. The flesh raw and melted. She imagined her own skin crisp, and blistered.

Faster, faster…run or die! Thanks to her father’s merciless drills, she continued onward.

Ahead of her she could see the remaining soldiers had lost control.

The frantic homeless charged them, took their weapons, and fought back. A wounded Leo staggered through the exit.

The door was in sight. Lilly pushed herself harder.

Earlier the tightly packed bodies were a blessing. Crushed up against so many she had let the tide support and carry her along, but now as she approached the exit, the mob compressed to get through the single door. Squeezed into a human funnel, Lilly lost ground.

She screamed, “Wait! No! Let me through!” Her small body fought against the undertow, but it was too strong. They pushed her back, further, and further into the inferno where Wanda waited.

Thick black clouds undulated like ocean waves. A lone figure fought through the dense smoke. Lilly knew it was coming for her.

There was nowhere to go but the loading bays. She veered off to her right where the smoke parted. Wanda materialized. Like a rabid dog she broke into a sprint, gaining on the hobbled girl.

Their eyes met. They exchanged glances. Lilly saw determination in the woman’s icy blues.

Then Lilly heard the screech of metal ripping. The loading docks were her only hope. The bay doors rattled. The fleeing inhabitants were tearing off the locks. One large door flew up. As if someone had turned on a giant exhaust fan, fresh air rushed in and with the sudden influx of oxygen the flames soared.

Lilly smelled safety. She checked over her shoulder. Five yards behind she saw Wanda’s gun rise up and target her.

A rat on fire chomped on Lilly’s naked big toe. Its sharp teeth pierced the skin. She jolted, bent to kick it away. At that same instant Wanda fired. It was a resounding pop, discordant music among the crackles, sizzles, and screams.

Lilly’s hand jumped to her neck. She staggered. Is this how it feels to be shot?

Sections of the roof caved in showering her with sparks. The building was collapsing. Braced for Wanda’s second shot, Lilly begged, “Let it be quick. Don’t let me burn.”

A loud crash, a blood-curdling scream, a shower of sparks, and Wanda was writhing under a tangle of twisted metal, impaled by the fallen catwalk. Lilly watched her squirm like a worm threaded onto a fishhook.

Wanda glowered and cursed. “Damn little snot. You let your own father die!” She screamed in pain, “Oh, god! Get out of my sight. Let me die.”

Lilly stared at the plastic crucifix still hanging around Wanda’s neck as it melted. Then she turned away and never looked back.

As she shuffled toward the dock her fingers explored the wound below her ear. The bullet had merely nicked her. Lilly knew her anatomy. Carotid artery intact…skin only grazed. And yet her legs were heavier and growing more difficult to lift.

Fields had said he wanted her alive.

So why did Wanda disobey and try to kill me?

A sharp stinging sensation spread under her skin. It was that same tingle you get when the doctor numbs you before stitching a cut.

“Not a bullet. Tranq…tranquilizer?”

It must have been a dart. She had been lucky it was just a nick. The rat had saved her.

Thoughts jumbled.

Hang on. Don’t go down. Lilly’s mind screamed…or had she yelled out?

Curdling howls and the insane laughter of the dying raced with her, but it was her father’s encouragement that propelled her. Her dad spoke somewhere in her drugged mind. ‘Try harder, Lilly. You can do this!’

Just when she thought this sea of fire and smoke had no shore, the light changed. The dark grays and blacks dissolved into airy silvers.

The scent of fresher air galvanized her.

‘A little more! You can do this baby.’

She burst out of the building.

Air! She could breath. She looked back over her shoulder expecting to see her father. He wasn’t there.

‘You’re stronger than you think Lilly.’

She smiled. “As usual you have the last word, Chichi.”

Someone slammed into the middle of Lilly’s back and she flew off the loading platform and landed on top of a mound of people. She went limp. She had escaped, but she wasn’t free.

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