STAR FINDER

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Chapter 2: Fixing What Isn’t Broken

Cosmo wished his daughter’s sulk could be remedied with fried tofu in the shape of Mickey Mouse as when she was eight, but like most teenagers, she wasn’t going to let him off that easy. On their walk home from the park, Lilly refused to speak to him and trudged along limping like a wounded warrior. He anticipated nothing less than a full-blown meltdown when she discovered he was the man in the bushes. But losing the ability to reason? That troubled him. Surprise, being prepared for the unexpected, was the point of the activity and she failed.

He soaped up his cereal bowl, placed it in the drainer. He heard the bathroom door open and close. About time she was out of the shower. Steam had leaked out from under the door and into the hallway twenty minutes ago. Hot water restored to the kitchen sink, he picked up the sprayer and rinsed the dishes.

The floor boards creaked. His little drama queen hobbled down the hall. He stifled a chuckle. Their low-rent apartment was small: two bedrooms, a shared bath with an open kitchen-living room area and sound traveled.

“Are you still feeling sorry for yourself, daughter?”

She scowled.

“The scrub down and clean clothes didn’t help?” Out of the corner of his eye, Cosmo caught the blink on his computer screen. It was a reminder that Lilly was due for a blood draw. He exhaled and watched as she rotated her arms and worked both shoulders. You’d think she had spent the morning being tortured on a medieval rack.

She glanced his way and when their eyes met, snubbed him.

Whew. This was going to be a long day. In her present thespian mood, she was sure to balk about being stuck. Maybe he should skip it. Her recent emotional reactions already told him what the test would show. Her hormones were on the rise. She was growing up. He should have seen this coming when she asked for a razor to shave her legs. Last week he had seen her checking her profile in the hall mirror for breast development.

Her body was maturing. A normal process for most kids, but Lilly wasn’t most kids. Like her brain, her body didn’t function like other teenage girls. High estrogen, the exact toxic level was unknown, could have a frightening impact. A fact he had hidden and a genetic glitch he had been struggling to correct for the whole of his daughter’s precious life.

“Why have you stepped up my training? Again!” She stomped over to the threadbare couch and plopped down with an audible ‘huff’. She picked at the foam stuffing protruding from a hole in the arm. “You are turning into a grumpy old man.” Why was he pushing, pushing her? “What have I done?”

“You’re not taking these drills seriously. You’ll have self-defense lessons every day until you can react as you have been taught. Three years of training and you panicked. Survival depends on automatic responses when you’re facing a threat. Where’s your logic?”

“Logic?” Her crisp high pitched voice cracked. “How often in life is someone stalked by her own father?”

“It was an object lesson. Did you defend yourself? No. Instead, you shrank in fear and forgot everything you’ve been taught. You surrendered to becoming a victim.”

She locked her arms, crossed them over her chest, and turned away.

Lilly rejected the barbaric method her father had used to make his point, and for that reason alone, she would never concede that he had been correct in his evaluation. True, she had overreacted. She had also never been so afraid in her entire life and never wanted to feel that helpless again. Yes, she needed to practice, but some pouting was justified. Later, once she had doled out a little of her own brand of punishment, she would take his advice and train harder. But not yet. After all, what is the point? Who would want to hurt her?

“For starters, we will review defending your center of gravity and moves to shift your attacker off balance.”

“You mean me, not we.” She moaned. “I feel like I have been trampled by a heard of orcs.” Two shaky fingers tested the cheek she had scraped on the bark of a tree when she fell. She winced a little more than the minor injury merited. “I’ll have to sleep on the opposite side tonight.” Her mouth turned down. “Of late, your approach to my education has taken a maniacal twist.” Something was off with her dad. Yesterday he had added more layers of cyber security. A bad feeling sat in the pit of her stomach. “I still say your skills test was cruel.”

“That’s your own fault. I was just going to jump out, say ‘Boo!’ and let you throw me to the ground. But you took off crashing into trees and playing in the mud.”

“There was someone else in the park. I heard him, Chichi.”

His daughter’s hearing was keen. Cosmo had spotted a man lurking in the area and a sharp chop to the back of the neck knocked him out. He couldn’t take the chance of him mentioning to the wrong people that father and daughter ninjas trained in the park. He glanced at the clock; the lowlife would be waking up about now.

Lilly pitched forward attempting to stand. Groaning, both hands went to support her lower back.

“Muscles tight?”

“Uh-huh.” She grimaced with every step. At the plywood center island, she took an apple out of the fruit basket and bit down. “Ouch.” She put it down.

“Oatmeal? It’s still warm.”

“No.” A finger checked for blood on her puffy blue lower lip.

“At least take your supplements. Vitamins.”

She dumped the pills from the Saturday slot of her organizer into her open hand, threw them down the back of her throat, and swallowed all six with a single swig of water. Then she spied her nails. “Ow!” Palms down, she spread her fingers. “I just gave myself a manicure. Look. They are caked with mud.” She held lime green painted nails out to her father.

“That’s why we have a nail brush. Should have used it. Sorry.” He pulled something out of a cabinet, stuck it in the microwave, and pushed start.

Her hands dropped. “Lucky for you, I am l-o-g-i-c-a-l. Don’t worry my PTSD can be managed without a therapist. However, I’m sure a psychiatrist would be very interested in talking to you.” Her pink tongue brushed over an inflamed welt.

He smirked. “Don’t lick your lip. You’ll make it worse.” Cosmo imitated his daughter’s long face. Her bottom jaw jutted out in retaliation. “We’re not rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet. Time to get tough, kiddo? Better a few aches and pains than to be attacked and kidnapped. I love you, Lilly. That’s why we train hard. You must self-protect and be prepare for whatever comes at you. You weight about eight seven pounds. A petite girl can easily free herself from the grasp of a man three times her weight if she properly executes the moves I’ve been teaching you. You folded under pressure, kiddo.”

She responded in a monotone, “Yes, dad,” and glanced at their desks. They touched front-to-front and occupied the middle of the living room. Just like her life—always together, everything centered on learning. Couldn’t he see she needed a break?

“You are precious to me.” He squatted in front of her, picked-up each hand, and brought them to his lips. He kissed them.

Were those tears in her big strong father’s eyes? Her hard shell softened. “Chichi, it’s all right. I understand how experiencing the real thing can be different from the theory.”

Cosmo stood. Rubbed her arms to warm her as he gathered inner strengthen. “Good. Now read.”

It was an abrupt end to a rare touchy-feely moment and yet enough to rekindle a sleeping memory. She smiled recalling how her dad used to play practical jokes on her even when it wasn’t Aprils Fools Day. Once, while she slept he filled her closet with helium balloons. When she opened the door, they poured out. We spent the next hour sitting on the floor sounding like Donald Duck. I laughed so hard my ribs were sore for days. They were again. She touched her side. But today’s soreness wasn’t the happy kind.

Poised to ask if he remembered the balloons, her father interrupted.

“We have a job later, Lilly.” The moment evaporated. “Lessons.” He pulled out her desk chair. She stood, walked over, and took her customary seat. Teacher and student slipped back into their roles.

Busy working an equation Cosmo paused when the microwave beeped. He retrieved the blue heating pad, wrapped it in a towel, and tucked it in place at Lilly’s back. He switched to Russian. “This will help.” He picked up a leather-bound book and held it out to her. “Your Jiu-Jitsu manual. Start on page fifty-two.” He flipped it open to the relevant section.

A voracious reader, Lilly averaged six to eight books a week, all selected by her father. She could hold her own discussing music and the arts, but science and mathematics remained her favorite subjects. She had learned Japanese at her mother Nashi’s knee—until Lilly was eight and her mother went shopping and never came home. A policeman said a car accident. After that, Cosmo took over Lilly’s lessons and added Spanish and Russian.

The professors at the prestigious Hun Preparatory School accommodated their virtual student’s high IQ by rewriting their curriculum just to keep up with her. She studied politics, social issues, and astronomy. Lilly skipped grades and her standardized test scores were off the charts, but she was sick of being homeschooled. A fact that her father ignored.

Lilly’s classroom had been and seemed forever fated to be across from her father’s desk.

She finished her reading in record time. “Chichi…

“Yes?” Cosmo’s pen never deviated from his calculations.

“Your decision to forbid me from attending school is not logical and begs further examination. Dad? Are you listening?”

“Sure.”

Lilly was small like her mother. On the other hand, her African American father was a six-foot block of solid military grade muscle. Lilly hoped she was still growing and her height would be an average of both parents. Even a taller silhouette of her willowy mother would be acceptable. In today’s world of fashion, short was not stylish, at least according to the websites she was allowed to view. Besides short people were often overlooked, went unnoticed, like right now.

“The fall term starts in another week—”

Cosmo cleared his throat. “An extensive vocabulary doesn’t mean you are ready to take on the world. Besides, it’s not the course work I object too. You’re thirteen and they’d place you with college seniors. You’re not mature enough to handle the social pressures you’d encounter.”

Lilly flipped her sleek waist-length hair back and tucked a few strands behind her ears. Shoulders squared she added, “I beg to differ. I know what goes on at colleges. I promise an illicit drug will never pass my lips…nose. I am quite advanced in all areas including maturity. I need stimulation. Perhaps another professor’s methods would be wise at this stage of my education. I must look to the future. Soon, I will be career shopping.” She thought she had touched on every objection he might have. He didn’t respond. She stomped her foot. “I insist you reexamine your justification for denying my request. Your response is not rational.”

Lilly had dreams beyond academics. One or two included having friends. Very aware that her father never imagined such desires, she avoided discussing the topic of socialization with him. She shuddered to think what mentioning the opposite sex and dating might result in. His awkward delivery of her sex education class had embarrassed them both. At times such as these, she grieved for her mother and longed for at least one female friend.

“Pay attention.”

Cosmo was listening. But how could he tell his daughter her future was preordained? She would never have a nine-to-five job.

“Studies, Lilly.” He pointed at a brown paper bag. “It’s twelve digits. You have never seen that, before have you?”

She removed the padlock and turned it over in her hands. She worked the combination. Finger tips searched for changes in dial pressure. Not to be deterred she asked, “Is your hesitation truly based on my age? Or is this about my gift and the need to keep it secret? I assure you I can handle the curiosity seekers.” A few more clicks and the lock opened. She leaned forward, placed it on her father’s keyboard, and smirked.

Cosmo lifted his head. Coffee rich eyes fixed on his daughter’s ambers. “No one is going to be curious because only you and I will ever know you are a finder. Now stop nagging. I’m trying to concentrate.”

Sticking together to preserve some semblance of a normal family had been right when Lilly was younger. Then it had been easy to convince her to play his silly games of wigs and hats when they were in public. Older and so much smarter, he didn’t dare approach the subject of disguises. The fabrication of plausible excuses for packing their bags and departing in the wee hours of the morning had also become challenging. Yet it is vital to her safety that she remain hidden. For all those reasons, social contacts outside a secure environment were a growing problem. What his girl wanted most, freedom and friends were the two things he couldn’t give her.

Lilly’s chin quivered before it braced-up. “Eighteen and five. Remember those numbers. Eighteen years old in five years. Because that’s all the time you have left to control me. After that, I’ll be making my own decisions.” She mumbled under her breath, “Although I am fully capable right now.”

Cosmo glanced at his child. She was right. Soon they must separate. But he wouldn’t be sending her off to college and it wouldn’t happen in five years, more like five months, tops. Then a new guardian would take his place.

Even with all his precautions Cosmo knew staying with Lilly was putting her in danger. The Nautilus Organization would never stop hunting them and Cosmo’s face was well known within the regime. He was a liability.

What had he been thinking all those years ago when he volunteered to work for Nautilus? Of course, the answer was money and to help in the fight against corruption and evil. Only later, after Cosmo had seen the results of Nautilus’s experiments, did he realize their goals were not as advertised. Innocent people strapped to that dentist’s chair while a doctor opened their skulls and poked with their brains…it sickened Cosmo to recall his association with such monsters.

Yes, Nautilus had arranged Lilly’s birth, right down to selecting her chromosomes. They even funded Nashi’s and his research and extravagant lifestyle as a reward for being part of their grand human experiments. We thought we were so smart. The neurobiologist and the geneticist—a match literally planned by those devils at Nautilus.

Now, these same Frankensteins wanted Lilly back. They believed she’d been bought and paid for, but you can’t buy heart—and Lilly owned Cosmo’s. She was all that mattered, the best and purest part of his otherwise screwed-up life. He would die before he allowed their blood-soaked hands to touch his innocent daughter.

But before his daughter left him for good, he had one last lecture to deliver. Actually, it was more of a disclosure. He had feared this moment the whole of her life, but she deserved—no, needed—to hear the truth from her father. To know who and why she was being hunted. Confessing a lifetime of lies to the one you love most—how would he begin such a conversation?

Cosmo walked to the living room window. Through a narrow slit in the heavy curtains, his disciplined eyes searched the street.

Three stories below he spied a man in a long coat standing at the corner. “Hum.” A lot of homeless lived in their clothes no matter the weather. Then again this is a rather warm fall day, seventy degrees, so wearing the hood of his sweatshirt up must be torture.

A silent alarm raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Cosmo’s brow furrowed, narrowed eyes looked deeper. He had memorized all the regular commuters and their scheduled comings and goings. He also knew the homeless who occasionally wander over from Liberty Square. This man was neither.

When one of the neighborhood regulars, a Polish grandmother from the apartment building next door, sat down at the bus stop the newcomer wandered over and joined her. Sitting on the bench he leaned in to chat. He pulled a paper out of his pocket, showed it to the grandmother, and pointed at the buildings. The bus arrived and the grandmother boarded without speaking. The newcomer didn’t take the bus. Instead, he opted for a lamp post on the opposite corner.

Curious. But there was something else that disturbed Cosmo. What was it? Then it struck him. It was the way the stranger moved. Almost like he’s on a reconnaissance mission.

That’s it!

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