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       Losing Lila, p.1

           Sarah Alderson
Losing Lila

  Also by Sarah Alderson



  First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd


  Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Alderson

  This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

  No reproduction without permission.

  All rights reserved.

  The right of Sarah Alderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  1st Floor

  222 Gray’s Inn Road


  WC1X 8HB

  Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

  Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

  A CIP catalogue copy for this book is available from the British Library.

  ISBN: 978-0-85707-197-2

  E-BOOK ISBN: 978-0-85707-198-9

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.

  Printed and bound in Great Britain

  by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

  For Nichola and Vic, for always being there for me, even though we’re thousands of miles apart.

  With love,

  S x


















































  I stared back at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My hair was loose, my eyes dark-circled. I looked pale and a little gaunt. Alex was standing behind me, bare-chested and in jeans, his hands resting lightly on my shoulders. The bruise on his cheek had faded and there was only the faintest trace of a scar running at an angle across his cheekbone up to his eye. He looked tired too. The strain of the last week was starting to show.

  ‘Just do it,’ I told him.

  He looped my hair, twisting it up like a rope, then pressed the scissors against the nape of my neck and cut. Blonde strands fell to the floor, but I kept my eyes on Alex, so focused on the job in hand. The only thing that was keeping me sane, keeping me from running straight back to California to find my mum and Jack, was him. Eight days zigzagging south over the border, trying to shake the Unit off our tail, had brought us here, to the sweltering heat of Mexico City, and this tiny hotel room.

  After Alex was done, he put the scissors down and bent to kiss my bare neck. I drew in a breath, goosebumps rippling down my spine, and gripped the edge of the basin tighter. Alex looked up, caught my eye in the mirror and gave me one of his half-smiles.

  ‘You look beautiful,’ he said.

  I stared at myself in the mirror. My head felt lighter all of a sudden. My eyes were massive in the pale oval of my face. I had expected to look more like a child, but I looked older somehow. The angles of my face were sharper, my neck longer. It was as if I’d lost the last vestiges of childhood along with my hair. Alex dipped his head once more, tracing kisses slowly up my neck towards my jaw, his fingers running through my cropped hair. He turned me round and, holding my face, kissed me full on the lips.

  Despite everything I was feeling – a lurid, unwieldy mixture of fear and desperate hope – I couldn’t help but respond. I wrapped my arms round his neck and pulled myself close against him.

  Ever since the night in Joshua Tree when we’d faced the Unit and Jack had been shot, I had felt like I had lost my balance – that the world was rolling under my feet. Alex was the ballast, the anchor that was stopping me from floating away. Just like he’d been when my mother died. But she wasn’t dead, I reminded myself. She was alive. And so was Jack. I had convinced myself of that, if only to avoid the crushing feelings of loss and guilt that threatened to sink me whenever I thought of what might have happened.

  No, I told myself for the millionth time. They were both alive and we were going to find a way to rescue them.

  Alex suddenly broke off from kissing me, the muscles across his shoulders and arms tensing. I glanced up at him, confused. He was looking over towards the bathroom door, as if he’d heard something.

  ‘Stay here,’ he said, pushing past me and reaching for the door handle. I heard it too then – a screech of tyres, the slamming of car doors.

  My heart started to pound, my stomach constricted. Alex left me standing there and edged out into the bedroom, his hand automatically moving to his gun which was stuck down the back of his jeans. I looked round the bathroom – at the lack of places to hide or things to throw – and then followed him.

  Alex was standing by the open window, pulling on a T-shirt as he scanned the street below. He turned to look at me over his shoulder.

  ‘They’ve found us,’ he said.

  The ballast shifted inside me. From the expression on his face it was clear who had found us.

  ‘Come on, let’s go!’ Alex grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the door. The words were still sinking in and my feet were unresponsive. ‘Lila, come on!’ he shouted. ‘There’s no time, move!’

  The Unit had found us. How on earth had they found us?

  I let Alex pull me through the door of our hotel room. He threw our bag over his shoulder and we started sprinting down the hallway towards the fire exit at the far end. Just before it there was a cleaning closet. Alex opened it, unshouldered the bag, threw it up onto the highest shelf, then closed the door behind him. The bag contained most of our money, a couple of guns and our clothes. Before I could ask him what he was doing, he had taken my hand once more and was tugging me towards the fire exit.

  He cracked the door open a centimetre. The boom of footsteps thundering up the fire-escape stairs hit us. The Unit men were about two floors below us, and moving fast in our direction.

  Alex swore under his breath and turned to look at me, frowning. I hated that frown. Then he took a deep breath, pushed the door wide open and pulled me through after him. With our backs flush to the wall, we sidestepped up the stairs as silently as possible. The men below were gaining on us; the noise of their steel-toe-capped boots pounding the concrete steps was echoing off the walls, ringing in our ears.

  My breath was ragged in my throat. I hugged the wall, expecting, with every step, to feel my head explode with pain and my legs fall out from under me. It would come soon. I knew it would. And I knew, when it did, I would fall to my knees. Alex’s grip on me tightened as if he was expecting it too and was getting ready to catch me.

  We made it to the sixth floor at the same time as the men below us hit the fourth, barrelling through the exit we’d just come from. The door flew back against the wall with an almighty crash and Alex opened the door onto the roof at the same time, the noise muffled by the shouts and footsteps below us.

  I stepped ahea
d of him onto the flat roof of the hotel. In the distance I could see the dome of the cathedral, but no way down to the street below. We were trapped on an open expanse of concrete about the size of a basketball court.

  ‘Which way now?’ I asked.

  Alex ran to the edge of the building, dropped to his knees and scanned the alley below. He ducked immediately, leaning back against the wall out of sight of whoever or whatever was below. The rest of the Unit were probably down there covering the exits. We were fish in a barrel. I looked at Alex and saw a panic so real cross his face that my insides liquefied.

  I spun round. There was no way off the roof. I ran back to the door. The footsteps were heading our way now. Voices were calling out, barking orders. They knew we were here. Damn it. Damn it.

  I glared at the door, focusing my mind, and it slammed shut with a crash. There was a discarded plank of wood lying twenty or so metres away. I spun it across the roof and into my outstretched hands, then rammed it beneath the door handle, hoping it would buy us a few more seconds.


  Alex was on the other side of the roof. I sprinted across to him and peered over the edge. There was an empty, garbage-strewn alley running down the side of the building. The Unit didn’t appear to be guarding it, but there was no way of getting down there. We were six floors up. I looked at Alex, wondering what he was thinking. He wasn’t looking down, though. He was looking across at the opposite roof.

  ‘We’ve got to jump,’ he said.

  ‘Are you kidding?’

  He wasn’t kidding. The thump of metal slamming against metal made us both look round. The plank of wood I’d placed against the door was buckling. There was a whole army of men on the other side of the fire exit. We had maybe ten seconds to get off the roof before we were staring my mother’s torturers in the face.

  I paced back a few metres then took off, hitting the ledge and throwing myself forward, feet pedalling emptiness until I felt them make contact with brick. I stumbled and rolled until I was lying flat on my back, the wind knocked out of me. I glanced up and saw the top of Alex’s head. He was staring at me in disbelief. Then he took off. It was an easy jump for him. He landed by my side in a crouch.

  He shook his head at me, pulling me to my feet, and we raced to a doorway on the far side, ducking behind it just as we heard the sound of metal shearing. The Unit had broken through the fire exit. We could hear their footsteps running to the sides of the building to look down, searching for our escape route.

  ‘Why aren’t they firing?’ I whispered. I wasn’t talking about bullets. I meant why weren’t they firing the weapon that made my head explode like a swarm of wasps stuck inside my skull.

  ‘They’ve only got one shot,’ Alex whispered back. ‘They’ll want to save it until they have you in sight.’

  One shot. That would be all it would take to bring me to my knees anyway. And then I had one minute before they could fire another round. Not that they’d need to. I’d be writhing on the concrete in agony after the first one.

  ‘This way,’ Alex said.

  We moved to the edge, still well out of sight. The roof of this building ran straight into the next, with just a low ledge separating it. We dropped over the side and skirted a pile of garbage until we were on the adjacent roof. There was a fire exit on this one, but it was locked from the inside. Alex thumped it with his fist and swore again.

  ‘Over here!’ a man’s voice shouted behind us.

  I peered round the wall. Four men on the roof of the first building were taking running leaps to clear the distance onto the next roof.

  ‘Lila, can you open the door?’

  Oh God. I looked at it. It was a metal fire door. Plain, with no handle on this side. I normally needed to see something in order to move it. I tried visualising the handle on the other side.

  Nothing happened.

  ‘You might want to hurry.’

  ‘I’m trying,’ I hissed.

  ‘Try harder,’ Alex said through gritted teeth. He had his back flat to the wall, his gun cradled in both hands. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to visualise the handle again. Imagined how it would feel to push it down.

  The door popped with a clang and swung open. I grinned at Alex. He grinned back and we darted through into a dark, musty stairwell. I slammed the door shut behind us. We hit the ground floor at a run and paused, breathless, before the final door onto the street. I nodded at Alex. He pushed the door a fraction with his foot and glanced out.

  ‘OK, it’s clear. I’ll go first. Keep against the wall, we’re going left. Move fast, keep down.’

  The alley we came onto was a rat run, just a few metres wide. I glanced up. We were in partial shadow. A ledge jutted out above our heads, giving us about fifteen centimetres of cover. A stone or something fell from the roof, throwing up some trash by my foot.

  ‘Watch out!’ Alex yelled, as I realised it wasn’t a stone but a bullet. The Unit were on the roof, firing down on us. Alex’s arm was pinning me back against the wall, just in case I felt like playing dare with a semi-automatic.

  ‘They’re not real bullets. They’re rubber,’ he said. ‘They don’t want to kill us. They want to take us alive.’

  I glanced at him. Was he trying to make me feel better?

  Just then we heard shouts coming from around the corner. They were closing in on us from every direction. I peered over Alex’s shoulder and fixed my gaze on the metal dumpster at the end of the alley. I imagined pushing it across the uneven ground, and suddenly I felt the shunt of it as it rolled slowly across the alley. When I felt it meet the wall opposite, I pushed harder, wedging it firmly between both sides of the alley, creating a metal barrier between us and the Unit. I smiled widely at Alex as the dull thud of bullets began to ricochet off the metal.

  ‘Run!’ I shouted, grabbing Alex by the hand. And we did, trying to stick as close to the wall as possible, bullets dancing around our heels, spitting up dirt and gravel.

  We rounded a corner into another alleyway, this one wider than the last. After thirty metres Alex shouted at me to stop, and threw his weight against a wooden door which splintered open with a loud crash. I stumbled through the doorway, my mouth falling open. Two half-naked men, with towels slung round their waists, were standing in front of a row of battered metal lockers. A wooden bench ran down the centre of what was obviously some kind of changing room. Clouds of steam billowed overhead, but I barely noticed. Alex had stopped in the middle of the room to look back at me and was now yelling at me to move. I dodged past the two men, muttering an apology as I went, skipped round a pile of dirty towels and grabbed Alex’s hand.

  We burst through a door into a long service hallway, sprinted past several people wearing what looked like maids’ uniforms, and then finally crashed through another door, spilling out into the luxurious hush of a grand hotel lobby. Several guests sitting in the adjacent bar area glanced at us, and the concierge yelled out a warning for us to stop. Out of nowhere a security man appeared, blocking our way. I glanced over my shoulder, close to tears, panic taking root, but Alex gripped my hand tighter, nodded at the gun he was holding, and the security man jumped aside.

  We shoved our way through the revolving door, exiting onto a street that was flooded with tourists, all heading towards the Zócolo – the giant square in front of the cathedral.

  ‘Walk ahead of me,’ Alex murmured, dropping his pace instantly to a stroll and ducking his head. ‘Keep next to those people.’ He nodded at a group of tourists just ahead of us who were following a guide with a yellow umbrella. I slipped into their midst, keeping my head down, my ears pricked for any shouting or gunfire.

  Once we broke into the wide cathedral square, Alex caught up with me. I felt him just behind me, his breath scorching the back of my neck. ‘Keep walking, keep walking,’ he said quietly. ‘Follow the group inside the cathedral.’

  It took all my willpower not to run. The square was too bright, too exposed; we stood out too conspicuously among
st this band of camera-wielding, guidebook-clutching tourists. I wanted to slip down one of the darkened streets and disappear into the chaos of the city, but I listened to Alex, keeping my pace steady as we moved in a pack towards the cathedral.

  The light was murky inside, and it was cold enough to make me shiver. It felt like being trapped in an underwater cave. My eyes were still adjusting to the dimness when Alex slipped his hand under my elbow and started steering me down a side aisle towards a chapel at the far end. Without a word, he pushed me into a curtained confessional.

  We stood facing each other in the latticed gloom. I pressed myself against his chest and felt his arm come round my back, his hand flatten against my spine.

  ‘You OK?’ he whispered.

  ‘Yes,’ I nodded.

  ‘I can’t believe you made that jump.’

  ‘I can’t believe they found us. What are we going to do?’

  He didn’t answer, he just held me tighter. We stood there for a few seconds in silence. My heart was pounding so loudly I almost didn’t hear him at first.

  ‘It must be one of us,’ he murmured.

  ‘What?’ I looked up at him, not understanding.

  ‘They tracked us all the way here. They knew exactly where we were. Exactly. Down to the room we were in. They stopped at the fourth floor.’

  I shook my head, pulling out of his arms. I wasn’t sure what he meant.

  ‘It’s got to be one of us.’ He was thinking, his eyes scanning me from top to toe. ‘It can’t be you. They didn’t have a chance to plant anything on you.’ He stopped talking then and we stared at each other. I caught up with his thinking. He meant a tracking device.

  ‘It’s not on my clothes.’ His clothes and watch were new, bought two days ago at a border town. ‘It’s not in the bag. The bag was in Jack’s car. It was unauthorised. The Unit didn’t know he had it in there. It was just for emergencies. I checked everything.’

  Alex stopped for a second, thinking, then he handed me his gun, and in one quick move, pulled his T-shirt off over his head. We both turned our heads to stare at his upper arm. In the darkness we could just about make out the tattoo of crossed swords, the words Semper Fi inked indelibly above. He ran his fingers over it. I followed suit.

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