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Lila shortcuts, p.10
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       Lila Shortcuts, p.10

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  I could take the bait and ask her out. It’s not the first time she’s put it out there, but every time I’ve pretended to be oblivious. If Jack knew I’d ignored the hint, he’d never let up. He’d want to know why – but the only reason I could give him is that I’m just not feeling it. Rachel’s the kind of girl who’s too used to getting her own way, to owning things and having people do her bidding. And besides, I don’t want to mix business with pleasure. Last time I did that it ruined my grade-point average.

  ‘I’m going out with Jack tonight,’ I say finally. Rachel holds my gaze for a long moment and I blank my expression as I’ve been trained to do when under interrogation and then edge round her and over to the door. ‘I have to catch up with him. He’s worried about his sister coming back.’

  ‘Lila?’

  I turn, wondering how Rachel knows Lila’s name, then remember that it’s probably all on record and Rachel will have done her homework. She always does her homework.

  ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Lila.’

  Rachel dismisses me with a curt nod of her head and a forced smile and strides out of the door ahead of me, her heels clicking loudly like machine-gun retorts.

  Jack nods his head at a girl who’s come to stand beside us at the bar. ‘Check out the cute girl,’ he says.

  ‘I thought you weren’t looking anymore,’ I laugh. ‘I thought you’d turned over a new leaf.’

  For the first time in his life Jack’s got a girlfriend – as opposed to a girl who he spends the night with, forgets the name of and never calls again. It’s been quite a revelation – an entertaining and mildly disturbing revelation. Jack in love makes me believe anything is possible – that monkeys can grow wings and fly, that world peace can be achieved and that one day our work with the Unit will be done. The upside of Jack’s metamorphosis into a love butterfly is that I’ve been able to witness it and laugh my ass off.

  ‘I have turned over a new leaf,’ Jack says. ‘I’m looking for you. It’s about time you hooked up with someone. It’s been way too long.’

  ‘You know the rules,’ I answer.

  If anyone knows the rules, it’s Jack. He always learns them, mainly so he can go right ahead and find a way to break them.

  ‘Who’s saying you have to date anyone?’ Jack grins.

  I grimace. ‘Not my style, Jack.’

  He says something then about Rachel and I decide I need to redirect his attention elsewhere. ‘What did the email say?’ I ask, pointing at his iPhone, which he’s clutching in his hand. Jack hands it to me.

  Surprise! the email from Lila reads. I’m coming to LA. My flight gets in at around midday. Lila x

  ‘Something’s up,’ I say, handing the phone back.

  ‘Not necessarily,’ Jack says. ‘You think this is the first time Lila’s been hot-headed? Seriously, dude, you do remember my sister, right? Short, blonde, impulsive as shock therapy? Stubborn as a mule who won’t take no for an answer?’

  Does Jack ever listen to himself? Does he appreciate the irony of this statement? I shake my head at him in wonder.

  ‘Hey, I’m not short or blond,’ Jack protests as he catches the look on my face.

  ‘It could be about a boy,’ I venture.

  Jack stares at me blankly. ‘A what?’ he asks.

  I choke back the laugh. ‘A boy. You know? A Y-chromosome holder? You don’t seem to notice them as much as you do the X-carriers.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’ Jack asks, ‘A boy? She’s just a kid.’

  I hesitate, wondering how Jack is only just doing the maths on this one now. ‘She’s seventeen. She’s not a kid anymore.’

  Jack looks like he’s about to go all Incredible Hulk and burst out of his clothes before rampaging through the bar. He jumps off the stool. ‘If any boy ever lays a finger on my sister, I’m going to kill him,’ he says.

  Again I stare at him in silence, thinking of all the girls Jack has laid fingers and much more of his anatomy on besides. Poor Lila. If she ever wants to have a shot at a normal life, as in one that doesn’t require a vow of celibacy, she needs to stay in London.

  Jack sits back down. ‘You think that might be it?’ he asks, looking pained.

  ‘I’m just speculating,’ I say, not wanting to fan his rage. I think back to the time Lila had a crush on me when she was about seven. She put a Valentine’s card in my school bag. Seeing how the bag was sitting in the hallway of their house at the time, the suspects were narrowed down to just two: her or Jack. Hand-drawn pink hearts and ponies weren’t really Jack’s thing, so natural deduction left Lila. I never said anything to her about it, not wanting to embarrass her, but if I was honest, it was also because even then I knew how Jack would react.

  ‘When did you last speak to her?’ I ask.

  ‘A couple of weeks ago,’ Jack answers. ‘She seemed OK.’

  ‘She seemed a little down to me.’

  ‘When did you talk to her?’ Jack asks, sitting up straighter.

  I curse myself mentally for mentioning it. ‘She emailed a couple of days ago,’ I say carefully. Then add quickly, ‘Go gently, OK? She’s been through a lot.’

  Jack glowers at me. ‘She shouldn’t be coming. She needs to go back to London. I’m sending her straight back.’

  ‘You can’t, Jack. Let her stay a few days – a week. Find out what’s up. You owe her that. We owe her that.’

  I think about the last time she was here – that image of us playing basketball rears up once more in my mind’s eye. Lila looked lost, afraid. And we ignored her. We were so set on joining the Unit we didn’t stop to think about her or how she might feel. I think further back, to the time before that – to the funeral. She’d just lost her mother and the only thing she needed right then was Jack. But Jack had flipped out and taken off. I stayed with her instead, partly because there had been no one else to take care of her – her dad was inconsolable, weighed down by his own grief – but mainly because I wanted to. But since then I haven’t taken care of her well enough. And neither has Jack. We’ve been so focused on revenge and on the bigger picture that everything else has fallen by the wayside.

  ‘It’s not safe for her here,’ Jack says, interrupting my thoughts.

  ‘We’ll keep an eye on her. She’ll be fine,’ I murmur, almost to myself. I’ll keep an eye on her and I won’t let anything happen to her, not just because she’s as much a sister to me as she is to Jack, but because frankly I’m scared of what Jack would do if anything happened to her. When his mum died, he lost it completely. Losing Lila would send him over the edge. Would probably, I think, send us both there.

  The girl leaning against the bar behind Jack suddenly speaks up. ‘What does one have to do to get service around here?’ she purrs. ‘Strip naked and dance on the bar?’

  Jack has turned at the very first syllable to check her out. She’s wearing a dress so clinging and tight that it invites much scrutiny. I’m sure that’s the point and I glance away. But Jack, of course, is straight in there like a shot. Even though he’s obsessed with Sara and would never do anything behind her back, it’s as if he’s genetically programmed to flirt with all women. And all women seem unable to resist his charms.

  ‘You could try that,’ he says. ‘We wouldn’t stop you.’

  ‘Jack,’ I say in a warning tone. We need to focus on what we’re doing with Lila not on chatting up random girls who look like they’ve stepped out of a manga cartoon. I signal to the barman and the girl turns to me and asks if I’d like anything. I wonder how old she is. She’s wearing a lot of make-up and four-inch spiked heels, but even so she’s tiny and there’s no way she’s old enough to drink.

  ‘No thank you,’ I say politely, my thoughts back on Lila.

  I can hear Jack striking up a conversation, but I don’t engage. Until I hear the girl say something that makes my head fly up.

  Jack and I stare at her, confused. I swear she just told us she was a mind-reader.

  ‘Ha ha, just kidding!’ she’s now sayin
g, laughing loudly. ‘I just know that this is where all the Marines hang out,’ she adds.

  A Marine groupie. Great. I turn in my seat and stare at the TV over the bar, feigning interest in the game. Jack makes some comment rich in innuendo and I hear my name involved in the sentence. Yes, I decide with a sigh, I’m going to kill him later. In his sleep.

  The girl is quizzing him now about bad guys. If only she knew, I think to myself. We’re about to catch a very bad guy indeed. Very soon. And when we do, we’ll finally make him pay for everything he’s done.

  ‘Soon?’ the girl asks, her voice practically a shriek. ‘How soon? As in tomorrow? What did he do, this very bad guy?’

  I turn to stare, a shot of adrenaline already flooding my system as I move fluidly off the stool. ‘I didn’t say that out loud,’ I say.

  The thought has taken just a second to process. She’s one of them. She’s a psy. How else did she read my mind? My hand closes instantly round my gun, tugging it free from its holster at my waist.

  Jack reacts too, reaching an arm out to grab hold of her, but she’s gone, darting through the crowd faster than a jackal, weaving under arms and spinning through the door out into the front lot.

  We’re on her heels, barging through the mass of people in the bar, the others from our Unit aware of our shouts and already following our lead, stampeding after us, yelling at each other, and we all tumble out into the front lot just as she throws herself into a car that’s speeding away, its door still hanging open. And there’s a shadow in the front seat. A face that I’d know anywhere, that haunts every moment of my life and Jack’s. It’s Demos.

  Then everything goes blank.

  Twenty-four hours later and still no leads. But we have her name. Suki Nakamura. All day we’ve been plugging it into the systems and pulling up intel on her. She’s a new one. Recruited by Demos and sent to infiltrate us, we believe. Though if that was an attempt at infiltration, I wonder at Demos’s recruitment and training criteria.

  ‘This girl can spend,’ Jack says. He’s standing at the kitchen table poring over the paperwork I’ve brought over: all the bank statements, credit card bills, airline tickets, hotel room service receipts, school records, immigration information and identity photos I spent the day accumulating while Jack was out picking Lila up from the airport.

  ‘She certainly can. The amount of shoes she’s bought in the last three months alone could sink a battleship.’

  I keep my eyes on the door, my hearing tuned for any movement from upstairs where Lila is still sleeping. I haven’t seen her yet and I’m aware that my focus isn’t fully on the paperwork Jack’s rifling through. I’m distracted and have to still my fingers which are drumming the tabletop. It’s like there’s an electric hum in the background, created by her, and the sound of it, the vibration of it, is jarring me, not allowing me to focus fully on what Jack is saying.

  ‘So, what else did you find out?’ Jack repeats.

  I zone out the hum and try to concentrate on the paperwork. I start outlining what I’ve discovered about Suki Nakamura, the latest of Demos’s recruits. ‘Twenty years old. Grew up in Tokyo. Her father’s a businessman. He’s funding her “studies” here in the US. I doubt he’s aware that his daughter’s a psy or that she’s currently running him into debt while simultaneously rescuing the US economy from financial Armageddon.’

  Jack shoots me a wry, impatient look.

  ‘But we haven’t had a trace of her since yesterday,’ I finish. ‘She’s gone to ground.’

  Jack frowns and I’m with him. Suki’s our first lead in months and we let her slip right through our fingers.

  ‘She’ll show up again,’ I reassure Jack, who’s studying the photographs of Suki now – each of them passport shots that show a girl with straight-cut bangs, shining eyes and a grin like a Cheshire cat.

  ‘You think she’d be that stupid?’ he asks.

  ‘She gave herself away pretty quickly in the bar, didn’t she?’ I answer. ‘I don’t think we’re dealing with a superior mind here.’

  Jack sighs. ‘He was there. He was right there.’ He’s talking about Demos. ‘Goddamn it, Alex, we could have caught him. He’s playing with us. It’s just a game to him.’

  ‘One slip-up, Jack,’ I say quietly, ‘that’s all it will take. Next time we’ll be ready. We’re going to catch a break, I feel it. They’re tracking Suki – as soon as she uses any form of ID, spends a cent on her credit card, registers her name at a motel, signs into Facebook, we’re on it.’

  Jack scowls some more at the photograph of Suki, before tossing it onto the pile. ‘I’m on call tonight,’ he says.

  ‘You want me to come over if you get a call-out?’ I ask. Then add quickly, ‘Just in case Lila wakes up and you’re not here?’

  ‘That would be great. Thanks.’

  And just then we hear movement overhead. Lila’s finally awake. Jack immediately starts gathering up the papers on the table and stuffing them inside the folder, which he then takes and slides into a drawer beneath a cutlery tray. He crosses to the stove and switches on the hob before turning back to me. ‘Remember,’ he says, ‘we say nothing of this to Lila, OK?’

  I nod.

  After a few more minutes we hear a creak on the landing and then a pause as she hesitates. Jack and I both cross to the door and walk out into the hallway.

  I reach the bottom of the stairs before Jack and look up. And there she is. Lila. Taking the stairs two at a time, head bowed, hair flying, looking as though she’s being chased. She glances up just then and I catch sight of her face, and am instantly struck by how different she looks – not at all the Lila I remember – but before I can process the change, what it is exactly that’s different about her, she trips on the next step and comes flying towards me. I catch hold of her by the tops of her arms and steady her.

  She stays like that, her head against my chest, not moving. Her hair is tickling my jaw, her hands pressing against my stomach. For a handful of seconds neither of us moves. And then she pulls away abruptly and my arms fall to my sides and I realise with a shock that takes a few seconds to register that I hadn’t wanted to let her go. I dismiss the thought almost as soon as it arrives. It’s only that I’ve missed her and here she is. Right here in front of me. But at the same time, seeing her again feels just like it does when summer finally comes around after an endless winter. You’re shocked by just how much you’ve missed the warmth and the smell and the ease of it.

  ‘Lila,’ I say, ‘it’s good to see you.’ I open my arms up wide. ‘Do I get a proper hug?’

  She steps forward into my arms, this time pressing her hands lightly and slightly tentatively round my waist, and I pull her tight and feel the tension in her body ebb as she takes a deep breath and presses herself closer. This time I pull away first.

  I study her. The girl that left three years ago is not the same girl standing in front of me now. That skinny, slightly awkward kid with bangs and braces, who seemed to always be wearing an oversized T-shirt, has been replaced by a girl on the cusp of something I’m not sure whether to call beautiful or stunning. A voice in my head pipes up loudly, reminding me that she’s neither. She’s JACK’S SISTER. I shouldn’t even be looking at her in that way. It’s Lila. Forget about her being Jack’s sister, she’s practically MY sister. And yet . . . I’m not sure how else to look at her. You’d have to be blind not to think she was attractive, beautiful even. I might be her brother’s best friend, I might have known her since she was born, but I’m still a guy. And I’m definitely not blind.

  I follow her into the kitchen, all too aware that I can’t stop staring and that I need to redirect my eyes northwards and my thinking elsewhere. I will. I just need time to absorb. To absorb and process and then I’ll be able to see her once more as JACK’S SISTER.

  ‘Been a long time,’ I say when we’re facing each other again in the kitchen. ‘You’re looking well.’

  Lila gives me a small smile, her eyes – are they contacts? Because
I’m sure they weren’t that green last time I saw her – keep skirting the floor, her hands moving self-consciously to tuck her hair behind one ear and then to pull up the strap of her tank top which has slipped down over one shoulder. No more oversized T-shirts either, I note. She’s still flushed from sleep, but pale beneath that, the freckles across the bridge of her nose faded. Her hair’s darker than it used to be too, and longer, but it suits her.

  I pull out a chair for her and she sits and I lean against the counter, keen to observe her, interested to see if I can read what’s going on from her body language. She’s guarded. Definitely hiding something. She won’t hold my gaze for long and her hands keep flitting to her thighs and I have to force my own gaze to stop following them. But she’s not as transparent as she used to be, I realise. It’s more like she’s opaque – the windshield has shattered. It’s clear there’s something beneath the surface, I just can’t make out what it is. Yet.

  ‘So, what’s the deal, then?’ I ask. ‘Why the escape to southern California? London not rocking enough for a teenage girl, so you’ve got to check out the entertainment factor of a military town?’

  Even as I say it, I see the way she winces and her eyes dart to Jack, who’s busy frying steaks but clearly listening to every word. He’s held his cool – hasn’t yet asked her why she’s here. And to his credit, after much persuasion, he didn’t hand her a return ticket as soon as she got off the plane.

  ‘Kind of, something like that,’ Lila mumbles in response. And then she looks up at me and holds my gaze and she smiles a smile so full of undisguised happiness that her whole face lights up with it and it makes me catch my breath.

  And that’s when I know for sure that I’m in trouble.

  Demos, Amber, Suki, Jack and Alex are all characters from the novel Hunting Lila…

 
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