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Losing lila, p.10
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       Losing Lila, p.10

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  Demos still didn’t say anything. ‘We’re going to win,’ I said quietly, the conviction in my voice surprising me.

  I realised I was saying it, forcing myself to believe it, because losing wasn’t an option.

  Alex was staring at the clock on the mantelpiece, his chin resting on his hands, when Demos and I walked back into the living room, but as soon as he saw me he stood up.

  I guessed time was up. I slowed my pace, trying to stretch out these last seconds. My legs started to shake. How was I supposed to say goodbye this time? And with an audience? I could sense everyone staring at me.

  I kept my eyes locked on Alex. He was wearing a V-necked black T-shirt and dark jeans, his blue eyes studying me, a thousand different emotions passing behind them which I could read as easily as if I was Suki. With a shock, I realised that either Alex was losing his ability to look inscrutable or I was just getting better at reading him. Either way I preferred it.

  He was going to travel by car with the others back over the border. They would be able to bypass border control while Demos froze the guards. The Unit would be watching the airports. They had to see me arrive on my own. My story had to hold water.

  Alex walked over to me, took me by the hand and led me away from the others. ‘Please don’t do anything impulsive,’ he said, once we were alone in the hallway.

  ‘Impulsive? Me?’ I tried my innocent face.

  He smiled ruefully. ‘You know what I’m saying.’

  ‘OK, I promise you. Nothing remotely reckless,’ I said, stroking up his arm. The bandage was off, but the cut he’d made to remove the tracking device hadn’t yet healed. There was a thin red scab across his tattoo.

  ‘Remember your first day at elementary school?’ Alex suddenly asked.

  My hand stilled on his arm. ‘Yeah,’ I said, frowning up at him. Why was he bringing that up?

  ‘You were really scared,’ he said, seeing my confused expression. ‘Do you remember? You didn’t want to go. But you didn’t want your mum or dad or anyone else to walk you in either. You insisted on going all by yourself.’

  I frowned some more. I did remember. I remembered how determined I’d been not to look like a little kid. I also remembered I was wearing a Harry Potter backpack. The memory made me cringe. There I was, standing knock-kneed on the steps, looking up at the school building, trying to will myself to walk through the doors as hundreds of older kids barged past me. It had been terrifying.

  ‘We were there,’ Alex said, interrupting the horror show in my head. I frowned at him some more. ‘Jack and I,’ he continued. ‘We were watching you the whole time, hiding behind some cars in the teachers’ lot. We were watching you from the minute you got off the bus. You had a Harry Potter backpack on, and some kid said something about it – teased you.’

  They were there? Alex saw that?

  ‘Jack wanted to leap out from behind the car and beat the kid up, but I held him back. And you said something to that kid anyway and he walked off looking like you’d just told him zombies had eaten his pet dog.’

  I laughed under my breath. He was right. That had happened. Though not the zombie put-down part.

  ‘And then you walked up those steps and in through the door without once looking back. And as far as I recall, you made it through the rest of the year in one piece.’

  I shook my head at Alex in silent wonder, still not quite believing he had either been there or that he remembered it. He smiled at me. ‘And when you were eleven, on Halloween you went out trick or treating with some friends.’

  I felt a twist in my gut at the memory of having had friends, of having once lived a normal life, doing normal kid things. I had unwrapped presents under a tree once upon a time with my family, had eaten turkey at Thanksgiving and even had sleepovers involving ice cream and Hannah Montana. The memories were so vague and foggy they didn’t feel real. It was more like remembering a show I’d once watched on the Disney Channel.

  ‘You were dressed as a pirate,’ Alex said. I blinked at him, speechless.

  ‘Jack and I tailed you all the way down the block and around the neighbourhood. He was dressed as Nacho Libre.’

  I burst out laughing. ‘What were you?’

  ‘The Joker. From Batman.’

  ‘Why were you following me?’ I asked, though I already knew.

  ‘To steal your candy,’ Alex answered, smiling before his expression turned serious once more. He raised his eyebrows. ‘Why do you think?’

  I shrugged. ‘Because you’re both overprotective to the point of needing treatment for OCD?’

  He contemplated me for a moment, then took a step closer so I could make out the day’s stubble on his jaw and feel the warmth radiating from him. ‘What I’m trying to tell you, Lila,’ he said, his voice husky in his throat, ‘is that I’ve always been there, looking out for you, even when you didn’t know it – even when you couldn’t see me.’

  My stomach flipped. Alex took hold of my hands and squeezed. ‘Nothing’s changed. I’ll be right there, I promise. You might not be able to see me, but I’ll be there.’

  18

  I made it through immigration and saw that Alex had been right. The tail wasn’t even subtle. A man in black combats followed me out of the terminal, practically stepping on my heels. The Unit seriously needed to work on its camouflage uniform and undercover routines, but then again, I supposed they didn’t care about blending in or being subtle. This man wanted me to see him and for me to know that I was being followed. But I did what I’d been told and pretended to be oblivious, hailing a taxi to take me straight to the base.

  At the gate to Camp Pendleton an armed Marine leaned in the window and asked what I was there for.

  ‘I’m Lila Loveday. I’m Lieutenant Jack Loveday’s sister,’ I said, giving Jack his full title. ‘I think he’s here. I need to get onto the base to see him.’

  He walked away and conferred over a radio with someone and a few seconds later I got waved through in my yellow taxi. The building was a way onto the base. It rose up like a square, mirrored fortress and I took a couple of deep breaths when I got out of the cab, my legs feeling suddenly elastic, incapable of propelling me forward towards it. But my mum was somewhere inside that building so I got a grip and forced myself to walk.

  The pod doors at the front of the building were swishing open. I half expected to see Rachel sashaying through them just like she had the last time I’d been here. How I’d hated her instantly. And not just because of the infinite supermodel legs, symmetrically perfect face and the way she’d practically poured herself over Alex like she was the hot sauce and he was a nice juicy steak. I hadn’t liked her because I had good instincts. From now on I was going to start trusting them.

  I edged up to the building, expecting the alarm to sound at any second and the searing pain that went with it to scrape the bone from the inside of my skull. What if Alex had it wrong? What if I triggered the alarm just by being near it? I hadn’t understood a word he’d spoken about electromagnetic fields. But I had no choice but to trust him.

  I kept walking towards the building. Ten metres, eight metres. I took a deep breath. Five metres. And then I was right outside, in touching distance of the doors, and no alarm was ringing. I was still standing. I was OK. I was OK. I looked up at the sky – was Key up there? Hopefully, if he was, he was keeping a safe distance.

  I approached the pods and looked for a buzzer or a bell, but as I stood there dumbly, one swished open. With a final glance upwards at the sky, I stepped inside.

  The doors locked behind me, sealing me for an instant inside a vacuum. There was no way back anymore. The glass in front of me swished opened and I stepped out into a wide, marble-floored lobby. Footsteps were clicking across the tiles towards me.

  ‘Lila!’

  I looked up sharply. Sara was striding towards me, her face a picture of relief and distress and worry and hope all blended into an expression that I wasn’t sure how to read. So much for trusting my instincts.
My instincts were bats in a cave right now.

  She threw her arms round me, pulling me into a hug. ‘Lila! Lila! What are you doing here? God, where have you been?’

  My hands were hanging limply at my sides. With a huge effort, I forced myself to lift them and hug her back, telling myself that there was no evidence that she knew what the Unit were doing. Sara might be our only hope so right now I needed to act convincing. I needed to act like I didn’t suspect her of a single thing.

  ‘I just . . . Alex . . . he made me come back,’ I stuttered.

  Sara pulled back instantly. ‘Is he here? Is he with you?’ she asked breathlessly. She was still clutching me by the tops of my arms, her wide brown eyes searching my face.

  ‘No. He’s not here. He let me go. After you traced him to Mexico City he didn’t want me around anymore.’ I said this last part to the floor, hoping she wouldn’t notice my cheeks burning. ‘He said I was slowing him down.’

  It was only then that I noticed the two men standing a few metres behind her – or rather I noticed their boots. I glanced up. They were staring blank-faced at me, as expressionless as tombstones. I frowned. They were both familiar – maybe I’d met them before when Alex brought me here to the base for a run and introduced me to his team. Maybe they were the same people who had been chasing us over the rooftops of Mexico City just a few days ago. Possibly they were the same people who’d shot Jack and killed Ryder. I had no idea. I tore my eyes away from them.

  ‘Come on, this way,’ Sara announced, spinning round and heading off across the lobby.

  I started and grabbed for her hand, pulling her back. ‘Jack? Jack – where is he? Is he OK?’ I demanded. ‘Are you taking me to see him?’

  She paused, looking at me oddly. ‘You don’t know?’

  Why did she think I would know? Was this some kind of test? ‘No,’ I stammered. ‘How is he?’

  She linked her arm through mine and began walking towards the elevators. ‘He’s not good. He was shot. You were there, right? You saw what happened?’

  ‘Yes. I saw.’ And I wouldn’t forget it in a hurry. Jack running to Ryder’s side and the expression of disbelief on his face when the bullet smacked home. He’d been looking straight at me.

  ‘He’s unconscious, Lila. The doctors are doing everything they can.’

  ‘Is he going to be OK?’

  Sara hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at the men behind us. ‘They say so, but Lila, it’s not quite so cut and dried. When he wakes up, there are going to be questions. Lots of questions.’

  I dug my heels in. I didn’t want to get in the elevator. Where was she going to take me? ‘Where is he?’ I asked, stalling for time. ‘Can I see him now?’

  ‘Not just yet. We need to debrief you first.’

  ‘Can’t that wait?’ I asked, my voice rising in pitch. ‘I need to see Jack.’ I didn’t want to be debriefed. I couldn’t lie well enough and I wasn’t sure whether debriefing would involve any testing – of the lie-detecting or genetic-code variety.

  ‘No, sorry, orders,’ Sara said. Her eyes were glistening with tears. They looked genuine enough. ‘Your father’s here too. He flew straight over. He said that you’d called and left a message that you were all going away on a camping trip?’

  ‘Yeah, Alex made me.’ Sara threw me a look. As if Alex would ever have to make me do anything. She knew that. Damn it.

  She led me into an elevator. I glanced at the illuminated panel of numbers. Alex had said prisoner holding was level -4. Four whole storeys beneath the lobby and as impenetrable as a nuclear bunker. For a split second, as we all crammed into the narrow space, I imagined myself taking out the two soldiers behind us and knocking Sara unconscious with one of the moves that Alex had taught me. But without using my power, I had no hope. I was a seventeen-year-old girl up against two elite commandos and Sara – and who knew what moves she had? And if by some billion to one odds I actually made it down to prisoner holding – what next? Was I going to ask about visiting hours or something?

  So I didn’t do anything. I just stood there in the elevator feeling the hysteria rise within me and trying to focus on what Alex had told me, but his words were just fuzziness in my head. He could have spoken in Spanish for all I remembered his instructions. I let Sara lead me out of the elevator and into a small, square, white-panelled room. There was a recording device on the table and a two-way mirror on the far wall. Was this an interrogation room? I felt suddenly chilled and crossed my arms over my chest. My eyes kept pulling back to the smoky mirror. Was someone on the other side watching me? Studying and judging my every lie-ridden move? Sara pulled out a chair and indicated I sit opposite her, facing the mirror. The door opened just as I was about to sit and another person walked in.

  ‘This is Dr Pendegast,’ Sara said, introducing him.

  ‘Ethan,’ he said, holding out a pale, manicured hand.

  I took it like it was some creature dredged from a pond, still covered in slime, wondering why a doctor needed to be involved in my debrief.

  Dr Pendegast sat down, indicating I do likewise. I dropped into my seat as though it was an electric chair, my hands gripping the edges to force myself to stay sitting.

  ‘Lila,’ Dr Pendegast said, ‘we just need to ask you a few questions. To help us get a better understanding of what went on prior to the shoot-out at Joshua Tree and to understand why Alex and you ran rather than coming back here where you would have been safer. We would have heard him out. We still would.’

  I nodded slowly and glanced at Sara, but she had her head down, her hair falling like a veil in front of her face. She was scribbling notes on a pad in front of her. Then she reached over and hit a button on the recorder before looking directly at me, wearing the face of a professional now, clinical and detached. I studied her. Her eyes were dark-ringed. Had she been sitting by Jack’s bedside every night, holding his hand, willing him to wake up? To live? Or had she just been working round the clock trying to catch us? Could I trust her?

  ‘Tell us what happened the night of Alex’s birthday,’ she said, giving me a brief smile. ‘You left the bar.’

  Wow, she was straight in there with the questions. I took a moment to steady myself and to remember what I’d rehearsed. ‘Er, yeah,’ I said, ‘I took a taxi. I went back to Jack’s.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because I . . .’ I looked at the man, Dr Pendegast. He wasn’t writing anything. He was sitting with one leg crossed over the other and leaning back in his chair. He was in his thirties I guessed, with thinning brown hair and round, invisibly-rimmed glasses which made his eyes look double-glazed. He was chewing a pen and looking at me with undisguised interest. ‘I saw Alex with Rachel,’ I said, sitting up straight. ‘I didn’t want to stay after that.’

  Sara looked up and gave a slight nod. She understood. She knew how I felt about Alex. She’d been the first person I’d ever admitted it to. Hell, she’d even encouraged me to tell him, back when the thought of uttering the I love you words out loud made me break out in cold sweats and dream of burying myself in a deep hole.

  ‘So, you got back to the house,’ Sara said, not following up on the Rachel line of questioning which surprised me. ‘And then what happened?’

  I took a deep breath. My heart was drilling a hole resolutely through my ribcage. ‘I got back to the house and I was just hanging out.’ I wasn’t going to tell her that I’d gone back to the house, hacked into Jack’s computer, found out what the Unit were really up to, and that I’d been about to pack my bags and leave before they found out that what they were searching for was in fact me, when Key burst in to warn me that Demos was on his way.

  ‘What happened, Lila?’ Sara asked again.

  ‘Then Alex came by,’ I answered.

  Alex had followed me home from his birthday party at the bar and had dragged Key and me out of the house just seconds before Demos had arrived. Of course that had been before we knew the truth about Demos and the real remit of the Unit – before w
e discovered that the bad guys weren’t Demos and his people at all, but rather the Unit.

  ‘Why? Why did Alex leave his own birthday party and follow you?’ Sara asked.

  I shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Because he felt bad? Because he saw I’d gone and he wanted to check up on me?’ I tried to hold her gaze even though I could feel my skin starting to prickle as though I had heat rash. ‘You know what Alex and Jack are like. He was probably worried that Jack would be furious if he found out I’d left and gone home by myself.’

  ‘So, what happened next?’

  ‘I don’t remember anything. Demos arrived. He did something to my head.’

  Sara stared at me. Dr Pendegast stared at me. Their eyes narrowed and I felt my pulse rise. I thought I might vomit all my nerves up onto the table.

  ‘We won’t beat around the bush, Lila,’ Dr Pendegast spoke up. ‘You know now as much as we do, possibly more, about these people. We call them psygens – psys for short.’ I didn’t say anything.

  ‘We’ve been studying them for some time. Your brother and Alex have been helping us contain them so that we can find a way of curing them.’ The way he said cure with a little curl of his lip made my stomach revolt. ‘We were hoping you could give us more information about the group of people that was holding you. With your help, we could stop them. Wouldn’t you like to help?’

  I wondered whether Dr Pendegast’s doctorate was in patronising people. ‘Yes. I want to help.’ I nodded and smiled in what I hoped was an eager-looking way. ‘But first I want to know what’s happening to Jack.’

  ‘We’ll talk about Jack in a moment,’ he said brusquely. ‘Do you know who Demos is, Lila?’ he asked, pen poised over paper.

  It was a trick question. I hesitated a fraction. ‘I know he killed my mother.’

  ‘How do you know this? Did he tell you?’

  ‘No. Alex told me. He said that the Unit had been chasing Demos for years.’

 
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