STAR FINDER

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Chapter 27: Home! Run!

Lilly dropped her blanket and leapt to her feet. She was a fawn caught in the high beams. A girl running with a crutch attracted too much attention but acting fast was her only chance to evade Leo. Hopping with her crutch, she careened in and around equipment and firemen. As she dipped under the yellow tape and pressed into the rubberneckers she glimpsed Leo and another soldier in hot pursuit.

A large crowd had gathered. It seemed one person’s disaster was another’s entertainment. She saw the gawkers as an obstacle course—one that would screen her and slow down Leo. She dove into the thickest section.

Small, she moved through the much taller bystanders without a hitch. She lost sight of her pursuer and hoped that worked both ways.

On the far side of the crowd she rolled under a fire truck and watched for Leo. She didn’t have long to wait.

He stopped only a few feet from her. Panting he kicked the truck’s tire. “Shit! Shit! How did she get by us?” He scuffed the ground and turned to a cohort. “Check around—all the vehicles. I swear she was she right here.”

She scrambled up and over the big truck’s axle, tucking her crutch in beside her. She hoped her soot-covered face and clothes camouflaged her.

He ducked down. “Nothing. Damn it!” Leo fumed. He bent and looked again.

The man returned. “I got nothing. So are you in charge?”

“Yeah, you have a problem with that? Fields is mostly dead. My Wanda’s gone.”

“Just asking. What’s next?”

“We’ll divide up. You check the survivors receiving treatment and don’t forget the dead.”

“You mean inside the body bags?”

“I underestimated the kid once. Never again. She’s crafty. I wouldn’t put it past her to cozy up next to a corpse and get carried out with the rest of the morgue meat. Don’t let a vehicle leave without checking it. Flash your fake FBI badge if anyone gives you trouble.”

“Man, that could get hairy. The local police called in the feds. They’ll be all over this real soon.”

Leo grabbed the soldier’s muscular bicep and squeezed. “Find her! It’s your skin if you don’t. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir. She’s crippled, right? How hard can it be?”

Leo pulled on his sleeve. “If you see any of our guys send them to me. I’ll watch the street. Now go! Bring her to me alive.”

They parted and Lilly exhaled.

This was her chance. She gritted her teeth, fell onto the ground, and rolled out from under the truck. Swinging the crutch, she crossed the street and melted into the shadows.

She would retrace her steps back out of Liberty Square and work her way…where? Where should she go? Their landlady was the only adult she knew and not a criminal like Nautilus. Should she ask Madame Zilla for help? Her father had not trusted her and Leo knew where she lived.

Lilly puzzled for a second. Every plan—plane ticket, motel room—hinged on money. “I need to get into my apartment.” She’d get as far away from D. C. and Nautilus as possible.

She plotted her course for home. Logically it would be Leo’s next stop. But it would take him a while to complete his search at the fire, and by the time he arrived at the apartment she planned to be gone.

The going was brutal. Her muscles threatened to cramp, but her good leg held up under her cumbersome gait.

Boom! She jumped. It reminded her of bomb strikes in war movies. She hung onto a light post and then realized the warehouse must have collapsed.

Closing in on the park she slowed to a choppy walk. She cut across the center, passed the fountain, and saw the roof of her building. Above it a Cheshire Cat moon smiled. “I made it.” She got her second wind, made a cursory inspection of the street, sidewalk, and front steps before she crossed over.

“Home.” It slipped out.

She hopped up the steps, less bouncy than when she had descended them. Her hand stretched for the knob, fingers curled around the cool brass. It wouldn’t turn.

“Locked! Of course.” She had forgotten. Residents needed a key after midnight.

One fist pounded the top of her head. “Think!” Lilly patted her back pocket. “My lock picks.”

She withdrew the neatly folded kit, chose two picks, and worked the lock. In less than ten seconds, she heard the click. The picks slid into her back pocket. She twisted the knob, and dragged herself inside.

She poked the door with the end of her crutch, slammed it closed, reached over and drew the bolt.

A nightlight on the small table at the side of the stairs cast a soft rosy blush over the foyer.

Someone was walking in the apartment overhead. What time was it?

Lilly looked up the winding staircase to the third floor. It might as well have been a ladder to that moon. “No choice. Get on with it, girl.” She breathed deep, traded the crutch for the banister, gripped it with both hands, and began to ascend.

She hopped up the first step on one foot. Her right knee buckled as she mounted the second and third. Forced to use both feet for balance, she paid for each step with pain but remained determined. The right leg wobbled. The left tightened. At the sixth she landed on the rounded edge. She teetered on the toes of her good foot and groped for the railing, but it was too late. Her muscles cramped. She lost control. Arms and legs pin-wheeled as she tumbled down. Her foot kicked the small table and the fake Tiffany lamp crashed onto the marble floor. It cracked into a thousand pieces shattering the sleepy silence.

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