STAR FINDER

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Chapter 26: Numbers Are Absolute

Sirens whined and people scrambled with hurky-jerky moves in the whirl of blue and red lights. The bright flashes hurt Lilly’s eyes. She looked away, up at the calmer heavens where stars were fading into the dawn. That wasn’t the sun rising, but the glow from the burning warehouse, now a crematorium.

Struggling for air she lay flat on her back in the street with the asphalt grinding into her boney hips and elbows. How did she get here?

Groaning, Lilly propped herself up and looked around. What she saw would stay with her for the rest of her life.

Bodies—they were lined up in two parallel rows—the injured and charred remains, spilled down the center of the street.

She slapped both hands over her face and after several seconds, peeked through her spread fingers. It took a moment to make sense of it. Which line am I in?

The moans and the stench coming from a person three feet away answered that question. Vomit rose and fell in the back of her mouth. She gagged. She watched as if she were a ghost hovering above the tragedy as firemen carried people out of the smoldering warehouse and added them to the relevant rows.

A man wearing a yellow reflective vest rushed over, kneeled, and wrapped her in a blue blanket, the thin kind you get on airplanes. “You’re okay, little girl. You’re okay.” He pushed a mask over her face. “Just breath. Lie down. This will help.”

Lilly didn’t have the strength to disobey. She nodded, grateful, and pressed the mask tight over her mouth and nose, closed her eyes, and breathed deep. Sooner than she expected, the lung pain lost some of its bite and her spinning world slowed. The oxygen resuscitated reason. She recalled the dart that had made her mind and muscles to go fuzzy. She inhaled and exhaled in a rhythmic exchange to flush out the smoke and tranquilizer.

No longer dizzy, she sat up.

A man, a different volunteer this time, handed her a bottle of water. “Drink this.” He squatted next to Lilly.

She saw shaking fingers reach out for the bottle and was surprised when she realized they were hers. She couldn’t grasp the cap. She grunted with each attempt.

“Let me.” The volunteer removed the top, offered her the water bottle, and patted her head. “You’ll need another.” He cracked a second bottle and leaned it against her leg within easy reach. “I’ll get someone to help you.” He rushed off with his sack of water bottles slung over his shoulder.

Staring at the bottle in her hand and the many littering the road, a memory struck—the melting recyclables. She no longer thought of the empties as trash but treasure. Would these be collected and cashed in by a street sleeper?

She drained the first and half of the second bottle and poured the remainder of the water over her face. She sighed. “Aah…cool, better.”

The cascading water left streaks, as if they marked the path of tears on her cheeks.

The man who had supplied the oxygen returned. “Sorry. Someone else needs this more than you.” He picked up the tank and jogged away, the mask dangling from the tubing. Over his shoulder he said, “An EMT will be over soon.”

Another volunteer offered orange juice. Lilly took two. Her body craved fluids. She gathered her thoughts as she drank.

She had seen Fields shoot her father and she’d watched him leap into the flames. He couldn’t have survived. It was absurd to think otherwise. Even so, Lilly clung to irrational hope—perhaps it was a heart’s desire to keep her sane. If there was even the slightest possibility that he was alive, she must search for him. Wincing, she struggled to stand. The moment her left foot touched the pavement, searing pain smacked her back down. She screamed, grabbed her foot, and rolled onto her side.

Every pain receptor in her body pounded with the intensity of a band of bass drums. To escape the fire, she had denied the warnings from her abused body. When the alternative to pain is death you work through it. Now it was undeniable.

She waited until the drumbeats dissipated before assessing the damage. “The ankle is swollen to three times its normal size.” From her toes to just below her knee the left leg was a sickly red-purple. “Deep bruising.” Her fingers probed the bones. “No breaks. Perhaps a bad sprain.”

She saved the worst for last: her shoeless bloody foot.

Her sock, the red one with silver roses, was shredded and soaked with blood. Glass, slivers of wood, and who knew what else, had pierced the calloused skin on the sole of her foot. The splinters stuck out like toothpicks in party treats.

Gritting her teeth, Lilly peeled off what remained of the sock. She twisted her foot up to see. Fresh sweat beaded on her forehead. She held her breath and dove in. She used her fingernails like tweezers and one-by-one pulled out the bigger pieces.

Panting, she took a breather and downed another orange juice. Then she went back to her bloody foot. From heel to toe it was crisscrossed with gashes. She pinched her toes. The nails blanched white, the rosy pink returning as it should. “They’re warm, a good sign. But I’ll never get a shoe on with toes the size of breakfast sausages.” She paused. “Wouldn’t Daddy laugh and correct me, ‘Breakfast sausages are not a medical term.’” She smiled and then wept because she smiled.

She peeled off her hoodie about to wrap her foot when someone yelled, “Stop! You, little girl, don’t touch that.”

An EMT rushed to Lilly. “What do you think you are doing?” She was brisk, didn’t wait for an answer. “Give me your wrist.” She checked the tag number attached to Lilly’s arm against the assessment sheet on her clipboard. “Number forty-four. Lacerated foot, injured left ankle, minor burns arms and hands, and head trauma. Evaluate for possible concussion.” She stopped reading and looked at Lilly. “What did you do? You’ve blood on your hands. You couldn’t wait your turn? If you haven’t noticed there are people worse off than you. But that doesn’t mean you can treat yourself. You could do damage.”

Lilly flipped the tag over, and over with her fingers. “I have a tag?” She read both sides. African-American female. Approximate age: twelve. Medical status was abbreviated on the other side. Checking the clasp, Lilly tugged on the threads. “I’m thirteen! Why do I have this? Take it off!”

“It’s for identification. We give out numbers when we don’t have a name. Leave it alone.” The EMT grinned, pushed Lilly’s hand down. “Let’s start over. I’m Loretta. What’s your name?”

“A-a, Li…Randa…Randy.” Lilly started to say ‘Lillian Randall’ but changed it at the last second. “Now you have a name.” Lilly twisted and snapped the thin string on the tag and threw it aside.

“Well, Randy. Let’s get you feeling better.” She opened a large duffle bag and laid out her supplies.

“First order of business.” Loretta flushed her bloodshot eyes with sterile water and put drops in both eyes to lubricate and soothe them. She applied ointment to scrapes and abrasions. “Sorry, but I ran out of gauze wrap. I’ll have to tape the pads in place? It will give you some relief until we get you to the hospital and take care of you properly.”

Lilly nodded.

“Now let’s see that left foot you were fiddling with. Put it here,” Loretta tapped, “on my lap.”

Cringing, Lilly lifted her leg.

Loretta smiled. “Good. You’ve got some muscular thighs. A runner? Are you a runner?”

Head hanging low, Lilly listened but didn’t speak.

Holding the foot up by the heel the EMT poured water over the gashes. “You’re a tough kid, walking out of there.” Loretta’s head bobbed toward the crumbling warehouse. “I can’t believe you pulled out those splinters. It must have been very painful. My client, the redhead with the kids,” her head titled and Lilly looked around, “told me to check you out.”

They exchanged brief nods.

“Do you know her?”

“No. Glad her kids are safe,” Lilly mumbled.

“Kids? You’re a kid yourself.” The EMT held the foot closer and inspected the skin. “Be still. The light’s not great, but I’ll take a look. You did the hardest part.”

Flashlight between her teeth, foot in one hand, and real tweezers in the other, Loretta plucked out the last bits. Finished, she pulled back. “There, between the two of us we got most of them. Did you know you have bite marks on your toe?”

“A rat. It was on fire.”

“Huh. That’s one for the books.” She took the cap off a bottle marked ‘antiseptic’. “Now this will sting. Brace yourself.”

The liquid foamed in her cuts. Lilly didn’t flinch.

“Brave girl.” Loretta rested the foot back in her lap. “This must have been awful for you.”

Lilly huffed. “I’m not a baby. I don’t need your sympathy. Just get on with it. I’m sure there are others who need your services.”

“True. It’s a big fire, lots of people hurt. As you’d expect smoke inhalation and burns. Eight fire companies responded. Extra EMT’s were called in. We’ve been doling out oxygen like Halloween candy. But you know in a way you are lucky.”

“Lucky?”

Loretta continued to talk. “Yes, because this fire is different. Many of the casualties were shot.” Their eyes met. “Do you know anything about who was shooting inside the warehouse? Randy, you don’t have to be afraid.”

Lilly stared into space.

“The police are interviewing everyone.”

Silence.

“Very well. Did you see how the fire started?”

“The burning barrels…” It was less than a whisper.

“Yes, what about the barrels?” Loretta leaned closer and waited, but Lilly refused to say more. “More people died from bullets than smoke and fire. Your friend with the red hair, her two year old is going to lose his leg because of a bullet, not the fire.”

Lilly shuddered.

“Randy if you know something you must tell the police. Whoever did this needs to be punished.”

Lilly shrugged. Her jaw firmed up. “You’ve examined my ankle, and it is merely sprained. My other injuries as you said are not life-threatening, bandages, and antibiotics.”

“All true,” added the EMT in Lilly’s same haughty tone. “By the way where did you get your medical degree?” The EMT gave Lilly’s back a playful rub.

“Thank you for cleaning my wounds. But I…please,” her voice faltered. “Could you wrap my ankle and give me an air cast or crutch so I could walk. I need to look for someone, my dad.”

“Oh, I see.” Loretta’s eyes followed Lilly’s to the body bags. When she’d finished applying a sterile bandage to Lilly’s foot she strapped on the air cast. “There. As requested.” She smiled and snagged a crutch from a passing volunteer who was distributing supplies. “And there.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Well, now that I have been dismissed…” Loretta stood. One hand thumped her thigh as if biding time. “You appear to be very much in control…on the outside. But what about the inside?”

“My mind is clear. I am coherent.” Lilly recited, “The President of the United States is Barack Obama, the year is 2016. I am in Washington, D. C.. The area called Liberty Square.” Lilly frowned at Loretta. “There on your clipboard check-off that number forty-four is ‘oriented to place and time.’ What else do you what to ask? How about prime numbers?” She recited, “Two, three, five, seven, eleven…”

“That wouldn’t be necessary.” Loretta leaned down. “Children cry. Listen to them.” Loretta’s hands waved. “So, Randy where are your tears?”

“Maybe I used them all up. Maybe I’m not one of those silly teens who dissolves in sobs.” Her voice broke and she stiffened to regain control. “I’m sorry. There’s no reason to be mean.”

“And I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“I want to be left alone. Maybe later I’ll squeeze out a few tears for you.”

The EMT gathered her supplies. “I won’t press, Randy. But if you need a shoulder,” Loretta patted her own, “Find me. That green tent has been set up as a missing person’s center. If your dad has been evacuated they’ll know.”

“No. He will not be at the hospital.” Her gaze drifted back to the line of dead.

“Oh.” The EMT pivoted, to leave then turned and asked, “I forgot. For the record, what’s your last name?”

Lilly said the first name that came into her mind. “Kimura.” It was her mother’s. The second it escaped her lips she knew it was a monumental mistake. Nautilus would search. They’d recognize the name and see she was alive. The hunt would begin again. She must get out of the area as soon as possible, but first there was something she had to do.

Loretta hoisted her kit and moved on.

Plucking the blue blanket off the pavement, Lilly wrapped it over her head and shoulders. It would conceal her. Braced for the pain, she stood and shifted all her weight onto her uninjured right leg. The crutch stabilized her. One hand worked the crutch while the other held the blanket together under her chin. She headed for the makeshift morgue.

Looking at the rows of bodies from ground level had been devastating, but now standing above them, she could see the dead laid out the length of the city block. A chill shook her.

The EMT had called her brave. Brave enough to see her strong father reduced to ash and blackened bones? Brave to the point where she could look into the faces of the dead without accepting responsibility?

Lilly moved from person to person as she dragged her blanket and crutch behind her. Faces…some of the dead had them, others didn’t. The man and his poodle had died as they had lived: together. So had the two girls that the soldiers had shown a twisted interest in. They were fused, both in one body bag. A few of Field’s paramilitary lay next to the homeless. Lilly recognized their black clothing. “This is wrong. They shouldn’t be here,” she murmured.

Near by a couple of policemen compared notes and glanced her way. She turned to avoid them.

“They found some serious weapons on some of the bodies,” said the first policeman.

The other added, “Out back there’s an armor-plated SUV. It’s more heavily stocked than the Marine arsenal downtown. Big stuff. Grenade launchers, and shit.”

“So this wasn’t an accident?”

“Maybe someone used the fire to cover up mass murder.”

“Not our problem. The Feds are taking over.”

Good, they weren’t looking for her. She trusted no one and moved further down the street.

The odor of charred flesh was sickening. A strange ache centered in her chest. The feeling expanded to her heart when a pair of blue eyes caught her attention. He was lying on his back staring out of a half zipped body bag, his skin a dusty blue-gray.

“Not burned. That’s good.” Then she saw the bullet holes that riddled his small body. She wobbled, the crutch and blanket forgotten. Not fully aware of her action Lilly found herself kneeling.

The sparkle in the little boy’s eyes was gone. “Please,” her words caught. “What have I done? Oh god, I’m sorry, so sorry.”

Her fingers parted and untangled his shaggy brown hair. “I should have remembered. Helped you get out. You were all alone. Just like me.”

She pressed his hand between hers and saw the ‘ring’ with the little red flower. Earlier she had refused this gift. Why? It was a small thing and would have made him happy. Now she slipped it off his thumb and onto her third finger.

Clipboard in one hand, pencil in the other a man stooped and yanked the flaps of the body bag wide. He jerked one limp arm up, let it drop, and then grabbed the other. “Ah, here it is. Number thirty-six. Did you know him? Can you give me a first or last name?” He combed through the boy’s pockets, plucked at his clothes, and poked his small body.

“Leave him alone!” She lashed out suddenly angry. She sniffled, worked the heavy steel zipper, and closed the bag. “Get away!” She threw her body across his to guard him.

He moved on.

For a moment, Lilly just sat there. He was so little and had so little. What had his amazing smiling eyes asked of her? Friendship. What had she given him? Death. Her throat tightened. She released him. In her lap, her hands folded and unfolded a dozen times. She needed to leave but couldn’t. Something, unfinished held her in place. She unzipped the bag, leaned close, and put her arms around the boy. She hugged him as a mother would—as her father had her. “You deserve the best hugs,” she whispered between tremors. Squeezing him close she rocked and cried.

Drained and exhausted she pulled herself together and laid him down. She kissed his forehead, crossed his arms over his chest. She fussed with his hair, straightened his ragged clothes. Then and only then she secured the bag, and stood.

Nautilus. They were as guilty as she was. They needed to answer for this. Pay for the boy, her father, and all the others, even the poodle. Her dad had started the fire, but Nautilus blocked people from escaping and shot them. The depth of such cruelty gave birth to a new emotion for Lilly: hate.

Her nose ran. She wiped it on the corner of the blanket. She watched the fireman add another body to the row of the dead.

Ambulances and police came and went unnoticed. Suddenly, someone called her name: “Lilly. Lilly Randall?”

In a flash, she twisted around. Hope and fear collided. Was it her father, alive and, as he promised, coming for her? Or Fields? No, he was dead. Who…?

The canopy of smoke hanging over the alley lifted. Lilly braced herself. And then she saw him. The priest! The one Wanda called Leo. She followed his gaze as his eyes scanned right and then left.

They fell on her. He shoved a man out of his way, and like a raging beast, roared and pointed, “You! Lillian Randall! Die!”

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