STAR FINDER

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Chapter 55: You Never Forget Your First Flash Mob

It happened in sharp bursts. Heads in identical blue wigs, bodies, packed tight into too small a space. Heat intense enough to thaw icebergs. Mutating glow-in-the-dark clown faces. Short explosions of strobe lights transformed human dancers into jerking robotic puppets.

There was a marked lack of air. “I can’t breathe.” Lilly’s nostrils flared. The shock of what had just transpired in the salon had gone unnoticed in the noise and pandemonium in the foyer.

The smell of cheap grease paint was strong.

There was no time to think as the flash mob expanded and streamed into the building whooping, “Happy birthday!” Engulfed, they tugged, yanked, and a pair of hands found Lilly’s hips, encouraging her to dance.

She shoved them away.

Spinning out of control she groped for Bobby. “Don’t lose me.” A featherweight compared to those around her, Lilly became a leaf in a storm of leaves. “Bobby!”

“Dance. Keep your head down. Work your way to the front door. We’ll take our chances and slip out past the herd.”

“But Nautilus’s men, they’re waiting.” Shades of the warehouse fire hit, but this time, there was no cardboard box to conceal her. “I’m going to be sick.”

“Hang on. Let me find my friends. They’ll help us.”

“How will you recognize them?”

“Yellow flower right cheek. Like ours. What—you thought I liked flowers?”

Someone careened into her. They dragged her into the thick of the dancing and Bobby’s hand dropped from her grasp.

She was picked up by another merrymaker. “Hi. I’m Feets. Let’s dance our way toward the door.”

His broad smile crushed his flower. The boy grated with moves she had only seen on YouTube. No wonder he’d picked ‘Feets’ for his street name. His red shoes blurred. He was as quick and nimble as drops of water on hot griddle. He whirled and contact was severed.

Alone, Lilly was passed around. Shorter than the rest of the undulating heads, she lost all sense of direction. The music pounded inside her like a second heart, the herky-jerky show—it was overpowering.

She edged through the maze of people and found the stairs. Elevated, Lilly searched for one among many: Bobby. Give me a glimpse of a yellow flower. It was an impossible task in a room of painted faces and she was quick to surrender and redirect her attention.

“Where’s the front door?” She’d go there and wait.

All of a sudden Lilly’s eyes hooked onto the standout in the crowd. She blinked and then blinked again. Her bones dissolved into quicksand. It was a moment before she trusted her legs for support.

It was Zilla.

Pale, a dressed-down version of these other ghostly figures, Zilla stood buttressed against her closed apartment door.

She staggered, then screamed, “Lilly!”

No one heard her above the roar, but Lilly caught her plea. Staying low, she plowed through.

Reaching Zilla, Lilly embraced her. “What is it? Zilla?”

Life fading, the gypsy’s eyes began to close and then widened with recognition. “Lilly is that you?” She clutched the crystal ball to her breasts.

“Yes. I’m here, Zilla.”

“Take it. Hide it. It obeys you, now. It will keep you safe.” She forced the crystal into Lilly’s hands. “Please.”

There was no choice but to accept. She curled her vest around it so her skin would not make contact.

Breaths ebbing, Zilla refused death and rallied. She lurched, hooked a big hand around the back of Lilly’s neck. Using her own weight, she pinned Lilly against the wall, yanked her close, and whispered rapidly in her ear. Blood dripping, her pale lips raced. She had one last bit of crucial information to deliver to her apprentice: the location of the tunnel entrance. “There’s a panel, inside the closet under the stairs. Part of an old dumbwaiter. I saw…”

Lilly struggled to free herself. The gash on Zilla’s head made their cheek-to-cheek embrace sticky. The blood felt both warm and cold at the same time. To most watching it appeared they were wrestling.

Zilla reached to pull Lilly’s head closer. One of the gypsy’s many rings snagged in her wig and it was plucked off.

That’s when Tem saw them over the second-floor railing. “Lilly!”

Right behind him, Claudie yelled, “Where?”

He pointed. “My mother…I see blood. She’s killing her!” Arms flying, he knocked over the person in front of him. “Out of my way.”

“Take it easy, buddy. It’s all fun.” Unfazed the man embraced Tem and pranced about with his unwilling partner.

Tem’s progress stalled on the stairs in the crunch of partiers.

Held captive, Lilly didn’t notice she had been unmasked.

The commotion turned into a fight breaking out in the crowd. Tem glared back at Lilly. Her hand shot to her head. The wig was gone. She tried to pry Zilla’s fingers loose, but the grip was iron.

Message delivered, Zilla released her. They made a silent pact as they stared into each other’s eyes for a fleeting second. Zilla nodded and crumpled to the floor pulling Lilly down with her.

Someone screamed. For a breathless moment, the dancing and laughing stopped while the music rocked on. Mass uncertainty spread. Was this a drunk? A party trick? Or someone ill?

The guests backed away from the fallen couple—Zilla and Lilly. They had become the focus of everyone’s attention. The crystal ball rolled out from under Lilly’s vest. Her hands darted out to pull it back in. But it was too late.

The cry went out. “Blood!” A woman pointed at Lilly.

The strobe lights flashed over the murder scene; the victim’s bashed-in head in Lilly’s lap, the bloody weapon in the slayer’s hand.

Bavol’s scheme had played out.

Tem cut the lull. “Out of my way! Grab her! She’s a murderer.”

Lilly looked for Bobby but instead saw Claudie’s fingers pressed to her Bluetooth earpiece. Her mouth formed the words, “Kod chernyy.” Lilly knew her Russian—it meant ‘code black.’

The front door splintered. “FBI! Freeze. Everybody stay where you are!”

Flustered partiers shrieked. Confusion reigned.

Crazed with fear, Lilly shoved at Zilla’s limp form, but was unable to free herself.

Tem screamed.

Bobby’s hand pierced the crowd. He yanked Lilly up and onto her feet throwing her several feet from where she had been. The slippery crystal ball flew into the air. It crashed onto marble floor with the blast of a thousand shattering glass windows. As if many suns had been freed, blinding light leaped from the cracked globe.

When the foyer quieted, Lilly and Bobby were gone. They had escaped into the tunnels. Zilla’s dying words had saved them.


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